The Return: A Confession
This started with a theft, not uncommon in this business, as there are only so many thriller plots. I was reading Carlos Fuentes’s wonderful The Old Gringo, and enjoying it so much that I decided to steal the plot. A New York book editor receives a deadly medical diagnosis and, instead of telling friends and family, he decides to go to Mexico and end his life there. He’s rich from a dumb-luck investment, so he buys an estate on the west coast of Mexico, choosing a location that’s in the midst of a drug war. Of course, he’s not just a book editor. He has a past and a number of interesting talents.Originally, I wanted to keep it simple. Marder, a guy who is already resigned to death, hence fearless, goes to a violent place. He meets a girl, of course, and she has to be involved in the violencia in some way, and there’s your thriller. But while this was all accumulating in my mind, I read a book about a peculiar chapter of the Vietnam war, in which a subunit of U.S. Special Forces fought a defensive campaign on behalf of the Hmong people in the Laotian mountains, and I wanted to have that in there as well. So I had to add another character, the Best Friend, one of those SF soldiers, and it turns out my protagonist was there as well, and so now it’s a buddy novel, my original guy and a fairly awful, burnt-out drug mercenary named Skelly.Then I put another layer in, because now it’s not a simple story anymore, but a complex thriller. Marder hasn’t chosen this spot at random: it’s the hometown of his late wife. She’s from an aristocratic Mexican family fallen on lean times, which leads me to write about Mexico, its history, culture, its innumerable agonies, so it’s not just local color:,Mexico becomes almost a character in its own right.
I read an article in the Times about La Familia Michoacána, a drug gang with religious and social pretensions, and that goes into the mix, too. Another article on the reinvention of manufacturing, ultra-high tech stuff, and now I give Marder a daughter who’s an engineer, which is a plus because I want to explore the father-daughter relationship. She uses her hacking skills to find out where he is and goes down to Michoacán because she thinks he might be in trouble. Marder’s wife committed suicide, it seems, and he’s carrying a load of guilt because he thinks it was his fault.
La Familia has split into two rival gangs who both want possession of Marder’s estate, which has attracted squatters, and Marder finds himself the patron of a small community of ordinary poor Mexicans. He didn’t ask for this. He just wanted a peaceful place to die. But he has with him a friend who has been trained to build resistance forces to oppose oppression, with many contacts among arms dealers. Weapons are gathered and a small army is formed out of the abused and dispossessed. (This kind of popular resistance, by the way, seems actually to be happening today in Michoacán!)
That, at any rate, is the surface story. But neither Marder nor Skelly are what they seem. There are deeper agendas in play, and Marder’s daughter is caught up in them as a victim who becomes a heroic protagonist as she confronts the monstrous drug lords of the region with nothing but her wits and a special kind of pen.
As with all thrillers, The Return has twists of plot and distractions and red herrings, which I will, of course, not reveal here. You have to read the book.