Monday, 13 April 2015
Thankyou, Mr Moto
This is a review of Thankyou, Mr Moto by John P Marquand for the Past Offences crime fiction blog's 1936 challenge.
John P. Marquand wrote straight novels about snobbery and the American upper class, but he also wrote spy thrillers set in the Far East of the 30s. This one is confined to Peking at a time when the Japanese were empire-building and China was ruled by shifting bands of warlords. Against this background, French, British, American and Russian businessmen and expats carry on life as normal.
The story is seen through the eyes of Tom Nelson, who has left a respectably dull life as a lawyer to live in Peking in a lovely old house with Chinese servants. Family money and the exchange rate probably makes this temptingly easy. A thoughtful man, he is intrigued and attracted by Chinese culture and philosophy. But he likes to ask of everything, "Does it matter?".
No snob himself, he has befriended a Chinese Prince, the dignified Prince Tung, who lives in a corner of his vast, decaying palace. He is also mates with a Japanese, Mr Moto. The drama begins at a party given by an American woman, where people of disparate origin dance to a jazz band. There are rumours of unrest, but everybody is tired of those. Tom bumps into Mr Moto, and an American girl called Eleanor Joyce, who has come out East and stayed. Is she just hunting for a husband?
Then an Englishman called Best invites Tom to dinner, tells him a tale about a sinister warlord, Wu Lo Feng, and next morning turns up dead. What was he to Eleanor and vice versa? Then Mr Pu the curio dealer appears with some priceless pictures thought to belong to Prince Tung...
The action becomes fast and violent. All our friends - and the pictures - get mixed up with the horrible General Wu. But the players insist on treating each other with elaborate Oriental courtesy, serving tea while threatening torture or death.
It is more of a thriller than a mystery, a breathless page-turner, and written by a skilled master who evokes a dimly unknowable city with empty, dusty streets, high walls, ancient gates, and the occasional rickshaw drivers' eating house lit by flickering lanterns.
What makes it 1936? The politics, and the sense that the Dark Ages are back. And Eleanor dancing in a tailored chartreuse dress and hat. And Tom's reliance on servants to bring him something to eat.
All the Moto novels foreground a young man and woman, with Moto himself hovering in the background. They were quickly turned into a Hollywood series. Moto is described as small and chunky, with protuberant eyes. Who does that remind you of?
The films were variable, with plots on loosely based on the books; Thankyou, Mr Moto is one of the more faithful. Peter Lorre played Moto with his usual skill, and Philip Ahn plays the renamed Prince Chung (who has acquired an effectively Oedipal mother). The movie Moto is more of a detective and a master of disguise than a spy or agent of the Japanese government, but we are never quite sure. The series came to an abrupt end, overtaken by events.
The literary Moto made one post-war appearance in a tale that stands up to the early examples. He is older, greyer, sadder, driving a taxi and given to saying "Poor Japan". The plot is even darker than before. I must read them all again - and Marquand's tales of the aristocracy.
Previous challenge here.