The Return by Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber has a PhD in marine sciences, lives in Seattle, and has a long list of publications, both novels and nonfiction. He served as a medic in the U.S. Army in 1968-69

I spotted no clinkers in The Return (Holt, 384 pp., $28), Gruber’s latest, well-researched novel. The hero is diagnosed with a fatal disease on page one and soon tells us: “The world seemed sharper than it had when he entered the office a few hours ago, as if someone had wiped clear his smudged glasses…the last time he has felt this preternatural clarity was years ago, when he was a soldier in Vietnam, in the night forests along the Laotian Border. This, too, was strange: Marder almost never recollected that war.”

This knocked my brain for a loop. Reading thrillers often requires a reader to willingly suspend disbelief, and I have become good at that. But this required a lot of effort on my part. For one thing, I think of my time in Vietnam every day. For another, when I was given a fatal diagnosis of Agent Orange-caused bone cancer by my doctor, no clarity was apparent to me at all. On the other hand, I am a different sort of person than Marden, which became clearer as the novel progressed.

Michael Gruber

The Vietnam War pops up again and again in this thriller, much of which takes place in Mexico. Gruber’s main themes are money, firepower, family and friends (one of whom is an old Army buddy with an impressive skillset where warfare is concerned), and drugs. The plot is involved and beyond belief (or summary), but there is so much forward movement that that doesn’t matter.

The reader knows from page one that Marder is a dead man walking. Gruber nevertheless makes us highly interested in what he’ll choose to do as his life plays out. Marder chooses to do plenty, mainly settling old enmities and scores. In doing so, he stirs up as fine and furious a shit storm of bad guys as has ever inhabited the pages of a thriller.

Once again the Manichean dichotomy of Good vs. Evil plays out. As the plot turns and twists in the scorching Mexican wind, I’m glad that superbly gifted story tellers such as Gruber still ply their craft.

Do yourself a favor if you love a great thriller buy this one and read it. Do not delay. You won’t be sorry.

The author’s website:

—David Willson