Wednesday, April 14, 2021

John P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto (#1936Club)

 "...but it doesn't matter, does it?"

Tom Nelson is an American living in Beijing; he's a lawyer, and had been on partner track, when, after a dispute, he chucked it all and moved to China. We're told he's gone native; he's become fluent in Chinese, knowledgeable about Chinese art, but with the presumed passiveness of the locals as well.

The novel starts at a party. His friend, decayed aristocrat Prince Tung is there; so is Major Jameson Best, cashiered for unknown reasons from the British army. He meets Eleanor Joyce, an American woman in China for reasons she doesn't disclose, and also Mr. Moto.

That's Nelson's tagline above. Nothing matters to him, until, well, it does. 😉

Major Best asks him to visit him at home when he leaves the party and Nelson agrees. When they meet later, Best tells Nelson he may want a formal introduction to Prince Tung, but is very mysterious about his reasons. Nelson leaves and sees Eleanor Joyce arriving. Later that night Best is murdered. Was Nelson the last person to see Best alive? Was Eleanor Joyce?

It's a pretty rollicking story, with elements of both mystery and spy thriller. At the time the novel is set, Japan is already the dominant power in north China, having taken over Manchuria a couple of years earlier. Mr. Moto is connected to the Japanese occupying forces (not quite yet occupying Beijing) in some sort of unspecified intelligence role. At the time the novel starts what Chinese forces are stationed in Beijing have been called away for reasons no one is quite sure of. But everyone is sure there's a plot afoot. And so there is.

After Earl Derr Biggers, the author of the Charlie Chan mysteries, died in 1933, the Saturday Evening Post was looking for a new series with a sympathetic Asian detective to replace it. Marquand, already established with them, took up their offer, traveled to China on their dime to soak up some local color, and produced Mr. Moto.

This is the second in the series, and the formula is established. An American going to the dogs in Asia--the passive Tom Nelson in this one, the drunk pilot Casey Lee in the first--meets a beautiful woman on a somewhat suspect mission and also Mr. Moto, who is neither enemy exactly nor friend.

Mr. Moto is a stereotype, however well-intentioned, but not quite as much as the Charlie Chan he replaced. He's loyal to his country, competent, polite, honorable, but also realistic, and not given to holding a grudge when he's lost the play. Perfectly capable of killing enemies, though only the ones that deserve it. Various characters defend Japanese imperialism because, well,... everyone else does it--the Brits, the Russians, the Americans--and, of course, that's true. I'm not quite certain how seriously Marquand intends us to take that as a defence, but pretty seriously, I fear. 

That does make it a good 1936 book in its way, representing attitudes of the period. Marquand is also pretty up on the political situation. One of the elements in the plot must be an attempted replay of the provocation of the Mukden Incident of 1931. A formula that would improve cruising ranges and eliminate the need for coaling stations is the MacGuffin of the first novel.

I read a couple of the stories from later in the series years ago, and I don't remember them that fondly, but the first two, at least, are pretty good yarns. 

Thank You, Mr. Moto, is also one of the movies in the series with Peter Lorre (!) as Mr. Moto. That's a rather Peter-Lorre-ish Moto above on the cover of the edition I read. The movie's available on YouTube, so we watched it last night. It's cheesy, but fun, and doesn't have much to do with the novel, except some of the characters having the same names:



This week is the 1936 club. Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting!


I finished this yesterday while waiting around after I got my coronavirus jab. Yay!

Link back to organizing post.


10 comments:

  1. i read this last year, i think it was and liked it okay... i must say i prefer the Charlie Chan ones, tho: they're less spy and more mystery, some of them quite clever, imo...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely prefer the Charlie Chan stories, but I liked this pretty well.

      Delete
  2. What a cover! I haven't heard of this, and it does sound very of its time...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The cover's a reprint from the 80s. Pretty lurid, eh?

      I think they'd be lost except for the movies that used to play on late night.

      Delete
  3. Yay for your vaccination shot in the arm! :D

    ReplyDelete
  4. I love cheesy but fun movies from the 1930s. Funny, I never think of checking YT, but I should! You've done a great job reading for this year too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YouTube is pretty good for that sort of thing. They break in and do a commercial at weird moments, but otherwise it has a lot of stuff that doesn't show up elsewhere.

      Delete
  5. Congrats on getting your vaccination. I got my first shot this week as well. I was very impressed at how easy it was...no massive lines, well organized, etc.

    I don't think I'd even heard of the Mr. Moto books, so thanks for the introduction. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And congrats on your shot! It's nice to know you've got some protection. I had the proverbial 'flu-like symptoms' the next day, not too bad, and it was a bit reassuring to think it really was working.

      Delete