Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank You, Mr Moto

Thank You, Mr Moto was the second of John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto novels, appearing in 1936. The Mr Moto films starring Peter Lorre are better remembered today than the novels but in fact the novels are extremely good.

In the movies Mr Moto is a policeman working for Interpol but in the books he works for the  Japanese intelligence service. The other major difference is that Moto is not the central character in the novels. The protagonist is generally an American in the Far East. Moto might not be the main character but in a sense he still dominates the books. He is the one pulling the strings, making things happen, or at the very least he is the one who knows what is really going on and what to do about it. 

The protagonist in this case is Tom Nelson. Nelson had been an up-and-coming trial lawyer in the US who became disillusioned and headed for the Far East. He has ended up in Peking. Nelson is a man on the verge of “going native” as the saying of the time went - he has started to become too comfortable in Peking and even worse he has started to believe that he understands China. In the chaos that was China in the mid-1930s that was a dangerous belief. Nelson is a man who believes that nothing really matters and that there is no point in doing anything other than just drifting aimlessly, letting life take him wherever it will.

Nelson has stumbled into a perilous situation that may well become an abyss that will swallow him. It starts out with a woman named Eleanor Joyce and a cashiered British army officer and murder soon follows. This is not a casual murder - it is part of a plot. There were lots of plots in China at that time and most of them were infinitely complex. This is no exception. It involves stolen paintings, an unscrupulous war lord and a plan to take over Peking. It may also involve the Japanese, who were deeply involved in Chinese affairs in the 30s.

Nelson does not understand what it is he has stumbled into but he suspects (rightly) that his friend Mr Moto does understand. Mr Moto certainly understands, but is Mr Moto actually involved? Are the Japanese mixed up in it? And if so, which faction of the Japanese military is it that is involved? As Mr Moto points out there is a faction that wants to move aggressively in China and there is another faction (to which Moto himself belongs) that does not wish to provoke a crisis. It is of course possible that both factions are taking a hand in events.

Mr Moto is anxious that Tom Nelson should not be embroiled in this affair, and Nelson has no wish to be involved, but Eleanor Joyce has managed to get herself right into the middle of it and Nelson has conceived the quixotic notion of saving her. This is contrary to his own philosophy of non-involvement with life but that philosophy is going to be very severely challenged. As events spiral out of control it seems questionable whether even Mr Moto can find a way out of an increasingly desperate situation.

Mr Moto is an intriguing character. He is a loyal servant of the Japanese emperor and his patriotism is unquestioned. He is serving Japan’s interests. Moto however belongs to the faction in Japanese political and military affairs that wants peaceful relations with the United States. He is pro-Japan but he is not anti-US. He is also not anti-China although he clearly believes that Japan can and should extend its influence in that country. Moto can be breathtakingly ruthless but he is also a man of very high moral principles. He also happens to have genuine ties of friendship with Tom Nelson. Moto’s challenge will be to avert a potential political crisis without harming Japan’s interests and at the same time to save Tom Nelson. The problem is that the situation is so difficult that Moto will have his work cut out for him and if he fails in his mission he will of course have no option other than to commit suicide. A challenge indeed.

Thank You, Mr Moto is a very entertaining and intelligent spy thriller and a worthy successor to Marquand’s first Moto novel, Your Turn, Mr Moto, but it’s a bit more than that. It’s also a perceptive exploration of the mindset of the European expatriate in the Far East and it even touches on the merits of differing philosophies of life - not just the differences between European and Asian attitudes towards life but also between those who believe it is possible to control one’s destiny and those who believe that such a thing is futile and impossible. This is certainly a book that is slightly more intelligent and ambitious than the average thriller. Highly recommended.

3 comments:

  1. I look forward to trying the Mr. Moto books. My husband has this one, I think, and I have an omnibus of three early books. We have seen the movies and enjoyed them.

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    1. I look forward to trying the Mr. Moto books. My husband has this one, I think, and I have an omnibus of three early books.

      Tracy, I hope you enjoy them. They really do have a distinctive flavour. I adore the Mr Moto movies.

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