In this installment, Tarzan has an impromptu meeting with a French leader named Count Raoul. This leader assigns Tarzan the role of secret agent, working in Algeria to out two Russian criminals. This portion of the novel really surprised me, as the narrative explodes into a Nick Carter-esque adventure as Tarzan tangles with the criminals. After the skirmish, and the assignment, Tarzan joins a ship headed to Cape Town and creates a friendship with Hazel Strong, a friend of Tarzan's love interest, Jane Porter. Unfortunately, the two Russians joined the ship's passage and throw Tarzan overboard. He washes up on the same coastline he called home in the series debut. Through a wild sequence of events, Tarzan becomes the new chief of the Waziri, a fictional African tribe.
Coincidentally, Jane and her fiance, William Clayton (Tarzan's cousin) are also in route to the west coast of Africa. Ironically, their ship sinks and Clayton and Jane join a lifeboat with one of the Russian criminals. It's this part of Burrough's story that is absolute agony to behold. These characters are left to die without food and water. The extreme circumstances lead to a coin toss to determine which living person will be eaten by the others to survive. This is written with an emotional touch and also places William Clayton into a respectable light as protector and caregiver for Jane (albeit short lived).
Eventually, Jane and William wash up on the coastline shared by Tarzan, and the loose ends are all neatly tied up. William and Jane's proposed marriage ends (no spoilers on how) and Tarzan and Jane are reunited. More importantly, Jane also learns that Tarzan is a Greystoke and the sacrifice he made to keep that fact a secret from her.
The Return of Tarzan also introduces a mainstay of the series, the Lost City of Opar. Tarzan is taken prisoner there and first meets the villain La. It is here that Tarzan discovers a wealth of gold, fortunes that he will eventually return to again and again. There is a brief backstory on Opar's history, but Philip Jose Farmer fleshes this out in his own Tarzan stories and two non-Tarzan novels, Hadon of Ancient Opar (1974) and Flight to Opar (1976).
As an adventure novel, ERB offers so much for the reader in this one book. Shipwrecks, castaways, espionage, desert chases, seemingly endless fights, treasure hunts, survival horror, jungle adventure, and heaps of action. This is really a perfect novel by a fantastic author. As good as Tarzan of the Apes was, this sequel might be just as good. A must-read vintage novel!