Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Think Fast, Mr Moto
The resemblances between the Mr Moto novels and the Mr Moto movies are rather tenuous (although it must be said that both the novels and the moves are terrific in the own ways). In the movies Mr Moto is a policeman, working for Interpol (which existed in the 1930s although it was not yet known by its familiar modern name). He chases criminals and spies.
In the novels Moto is an agent (and a senior one) of the Japanese intelligence service. He is unequivocally a spy. But that doesn’t mean he’s the bad guy. Not at all. At the time Marquand wrote the early Moto books the United States and Japan were at peace. Moto’s attempts to advance the interests of the Japanese Empire are not portrayed as being morally any different from the attempts of other characters to advance their own national interests (whether they be American, Chinese, British, or what have you). Moto can be ruthless but he’s a secret agent, not a Boy Scout. Like any good spy he practises deception when it is professionally necessary to do so but on a personal level he is honest, honourable and even kindly. There is no trace of cruelty in Mr Moto. Necessary ruthlessness yes, but never cruelty.
Mr Moto is not the actual protagonist in most of the novels. He does however still manage to be the dominant character. He’s the one who sets things in motion, and he’s the one who continues to pull the strings. And of course he’s by far the most interesting character in the books.
In this case the protagonist is Wilson Hitchings, a pleasant young American. He is in Shanghai where he is being groomed to take his place in the family business. The family business is Hitchings Brothers, a venerable, highly respected, very wealthy trading and banking firm with interests throughout the Far East. Wilson’s Uncle Will currently holds the reins of power. Uncle Will has received some disturbing news from the company’s Honolulu office. A distant relative, a young woman, is running a very successful gambling club there. That would be no problem except that the club is named the Hitchings Plantation. Hitching Brothers most certainly does not want its name to be associated with a gambling club but the difficulty is that the young woman concerned is most definitely a Hitchings (her name in fact is Eva Hitchings) and sees no reason to change the name. Wilson is despatched to Honolulu to buy her off, in as subtle a manner as possible.
In Honolulu Wilson Hitchings is surprised to run into Mr Moto, a Japanese gentleman he had met briefly in Shanghai (his uncle had told him a rather unlikely story that this inoffensive little man was actually a Japanese government agent). Wilson also discovers that things are not quite right in Honolulu. The story he had been told about Eva Hitchings and her gambling club doesn’t quite ring true. Something odd is going on. His feeling of disquiet is confirmed when a gunman opens fire at him. Or was the gunman aiming at Eva Hitchings? Or possibly Mr Moto? And why on earth would anyone want to kill any of them? For that matter, why is Eva’s club apparently run by gangsters and why is the roulette wheel crooked? It’s also puzzling that a Japanese government agent should just happen to be on the scene, and apparently taking a keen interest in the Hitchings Plantation.
Wilson Hitchings is an interesting protagonist. He has something in common with Eric Ambler’s heroes - ordinary men who are reluctantly drawn into the world of espionage. The main difference is that Wilson, once he decides that the reputation of Hitchings Brothers is at stake, isn’t entirely reluctant. He’s also rather competent. He is an intelligent and resourceful young man. His main disadvantage is that he has brought up in a world sheltered from sordid realities like crime and espionage and faced with such things he is an innocent. He is also inclined, as Mr Moto points out, to assume that a beautiful woman must also be a good woman. Mr Moto has no such illusions about the female of the species.
Marquand mercifully does not succumb to the temptation to deliver political lectures. Mr Moto is doing his job and serving his country and given that Japan and the United States were at peace at the time there is no reason why a young American should not co-operate with him. Moto wants to serve Japan’s interests. Hitchings wants to protect the good name of his family and of the family business.
This is a very unconventional spy thriller. It has character development! In the course of this adventure Wilson Hitchings learns a good deal about life and about himself, and about the moral complexities of duty and honour and loyalty in an imperfect world. He grows up.
There is some action although the emphasis is on suspense and atmosphere as both Wilson Hitchings and Mr Moto, in pursuance of quite different agendas, slowly unravel a complex conspiracy. Marquand certainly has to be considered to be at the more literary end of the spy fiction genre.
Think Fast, Mr Moto is unusual but fascinating. Highly recommended. The two earlier books in the series, Your Turn, Mr Moto and Thank You, Mr Moto are also excellent.