V. M. Zito, The Return Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012), 453pp
Zombie fiction is one of the most popular subgenres in Western popular culture. In the last ten years, whether in film, television, video game or book form, zombies have multiplied - as they are inclined to - like a plague. Inevitably, this means that certain tropes are repeated or rehashed, become clichés, and the genre becomes stale. It is therefore a great surprise that V. M. Zito's The Return Man manages to tell a zombie story that feels fresh. Zito strikes gold with his new concept: that of a 'zombie hitman', a survivor roaming the 'Evacuated States' who kills - or 'returns' - specific zombies on behalf of their grieving families back in the 'Safe States' - that is, all the land east of the Mississippi. Zombies retain some memories of their previous lives in the primitive parts of their brains, so Marco knows how to track them - 'emotional geography', he calls it. He is shanghaied by a shady political figure to complete a task considered crucial to national security which requires him to travel to infested California, where he must confront his own demons as well as hordes of zombies.
Zito balances these two angles well - both the national security/political intrigue and the personal character-driven plotlines are excellent and do not get in the way of each other. The first angle is anchored by a believable origin story of how the outbreak manifested, as well as the believable rise of the right-wing New Republican party in the Safe States: "After the Resurrection, their ideals had spread like a fresh infection, exploiting the weak tissues of wounded America." (pg. 38). The second, personal angle is given weight by the strong characterisation of protagonist Henry Marco. The story is told from his perspective, and we empathise with his isolation and his doubts. When this plotline concludes at the end of the book, it is a sucker punch, as we have grown to care about what happens to Marco. Zito hints in an interview included at the end of the book that there might be a second Henry Marco book; whilst this would be interesting, I feel it would be a mistake. Marco's character arc is wrapped up at the end of this novel, and with this resolved I fail to see how the character's emotional weight will fascinate the reader a second time to the extent it did here. What would be Marco's motivations for continuing?
The quality of writing is also superb - Marco's love for his lost wife aches from the pages, as does his crushing isolation from society. Yet when the action kicks in, it is very exciting and frenetic - if the personal moments ache, then in these moments the action leaps off the page. Most of all, I was impressed by the very real danger that the zombies pose. In a lot of zombie fiction, the zombies are incidental to the story, or pose little actual threat - merely inconveniences or cannon fodder for the main characters. Yet in The Return Man, the zombies are imbued with great menace - Marco frets over whether to use a gun to take down his 'target', as a gunshot would alert masses of nearby zombies. His mind races as he looks for what might go wrong, where his possible escape routes are. The weighing up of risk against reward is one of the book's strongest features - Henry Marco is, above all, about surviving. In our highly-developed society, it is easy to forget how difficult this can be in a more primitive and oppressive environment. When the characters are in situations where they are swarmed or might be swarmed by zombies, an element of panic and tension is palpable. "These corpses have a way of... outwitting you. Maybe because we overthink, and they just go on instinct," Marco warns his companion, Wu, on page 146. The reader is also treated to some rich detail; Wu, for example, does not just have green eyes, but "Green, the colour of legend. It was the hereditary mark of Crassus's lost Roman legion, soldiers who'd disappeared in Gansu two thousand years ago; they were rumoured to have wandered China as mercenaries, fathering exotic new bloodlines as they went. Surely young Wu had soldier-blood in his heart, pounding like cannon-fire..." (pg. 209).
In essence, the strength of The Return Man is its measured approach; the balance Zito brings is similar to that of an experienced writer, not a first-time author. The narrative knows when to slow down and when to speed up, the characterisation knows when to lean closer and when to stand off, and the plot knows when to reveal and when to conceal. It is a finely-attuned book and a fantastic example of what this genre has to offer. I have read, and will continue to read, much zombie fiction, but The Return Man stands as one of the best.