When one thinks of Tarzan the term “Secret Agent” does not immediately leap to mind, but in this first sequel that is exactly what Tarzan becomes. Even stranger is that after the success of the first Tarzan book All-Story Magazine rejected The Return of Tarzan manuscript (twice) and so Burroughs went to New Story and ended up getting more money. So in the year 1913 fans were finally able to learn if Tarzan and Jane actually got together.
Tarzan of the Apes did end on a bit of a downer note with Jane deciding to marry William Cecil Clayton, denying her love for Tarzan, and the ape man himself nobly stepping aside even after finding out that he is the true heir of the Greystoke title. So The Return of Tarzan begins with our dejected hero returning to Europe via ocean liner. It’s while on this voyage that Tarzan encounters two of his most nefarious foes; Nicholas Rokoff and his henchman Alexis Paulvitch. Tarzan notices Rokoff slipping something in the pocket of Count Raoul de Coude, who is playing cards with Paulvitch, and is able to expose a plot to discredit the Count as a card cheat. Later Tarzan foils a plot where Rokoff attempts to besmirch the honor of Countess de Coude. This all stems from the fact that Rokoff is a Russian spy and he needs leverage to blackmail the Count. Tarzan’s thwarting of Rokoff’s plans earns the ape man the enmity of this dastardly spy, but Tarzan is unable to meet out jungle justice as he is repeatedly asked to spare Rokoff by the Countess.
Later in Paris Tarzan becomes great friends of the Count and Countess, but once again the nefarious schemes of Rokoff intrude and the evil Russian is able to trick Tarzan into a situation that results in him having to have “Pistols at Dawn” with the Count. Considering himself to be in the wrong, he was found with the Countess’s boudoir at night, Tarzan just stands there while the Count unloads three shots at him. Lucky for us it takes more than that to kill the Lord of the Jungle. Tarzan then offers his own pistol to the Count stating that, “Only death could atone for the wrong I have done.” Tarzan then hands a confession he had earlier beat out of Rokoff that clearly shows that neither the Countess nor Tarzan were at fault. (A document I may have handed over before the duel, but then again I’m not the noble Tarzan). Tarzan and the Count resume their friendship and the Count even gets Tarzan a job with the Ministry of War.
It’s at this point that Tarzan becomes a secret agent for France. (It’s a shame we never got a story where Tarzan working for France faced off against James Bond working for Britain.) So Tarzan is sent to Algiers to investigate whether or not a French officer is selling classified information to the enemy. I must say it was a great idea thrusting the “Lord of the Jungle” into the deserts of Africa as it goes to show that he can pretty much adapt to any environment or danger. It’s also the beginning of the long tradition of Tarzan rescue a person who turns out to be related a person of power or prestige. In this case a beautiful slave girl that just so happens to be the daughter of a great sheik. Later, when death is almost a certainty, his earlier act of heroism will pay off and he will be rescued by his new friend(s). This is a situation that will play out in many of the Tarzan books, sometimes happening more than once per book.
It surprises no one, least of all Tarzan, when the foreign agent involved in Algiers turns out to be Rokoff, and once again Tarzan spares the bastard’s life because he is the brother of the Countess. The amount of times he could have easily ended this villain’s life in this book is almost staggering, but Burroughs always manages to give a reason for Tarzan holding back his bestial nature. Though considering in this book alone Rokoff tries to outright murder Tarzan a half dozen times I doubt such defenses as “He’s my brother” or “If you kill him they will arrest you for murder” would hold much water to a man who spent much of his life killing to survive.
While transporting the retrieved documents via cruise ship Tarzan encounters Hazel Strong, Jane Porter’s oldest and dearest friend, but he cannot let her know who he is as he is travelling incognito. Also aboard the ship are Nicholas Rokoff and Alexis Paulvitch, who have been trailing Tarzan in the hope of getting back the documents. Tarzan threatens Rokoff but now they are starting to feel like idle threats, and the two Russians steal back the documents and toss Tarzan overboard. Proving it is really a small world one of the boats passing in the night holds Jane and her fiancé William Clayton.
What follows is unadulterated action and drama. Ships sink, there are battles over the morality of cannibalism, Tarzan washes ashore right by the cabin his father built (proving once again this little inlet is a magnet for Greystokes), he befriends the Waziri tribe by saving the chief’s son from a hungry lion, defends them from slavers and ivory poachers, and becomes their king when their chieftain falls. Jane and friends are shipwrecked themselves and end up on the shores of Africa just a few miles down from Tarzan’s cabin (seriously, it is a really small world), and included in this group is the villainous Rokoff.
As if this isn’t enough for one book we are also introduced to the lost city of Opar, an outpost of Atlantis that was forgotten after the sinking of the fabled continent. It’s there that we meet the La, high priestess of Opar who at first is going to sacrifice Tarzan to the Sun God, but eventually wants him for more carnal activities. Will Tarzan pick this beautiful but deadly woman over his true love, or will he go back to living with the Great Apes? Will Nicholas Rokoff finally get his just desserts? Does Tarzan finally reclaim the title of Lord Greystoke? All this and more is answered in book so packed with action it’s hard to believe it’s just over two hundred pages. The Return of Tarzan is the book that clearly set the tone for the rest of the series, and a very good tone it is.