Thursday, October 25, 2012

Who's side is he on this time?

Read/Watch ‘em in order #25

In the first Mr. Moto novel, he was an adversary. But in Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), he’s an ally to the main character.

How did this happen? Well, this time out the protagonist and first-person narrator is Tom Nelson, a former lawyer who grew sick of the American rat race and moved to Peking. Now he just drifts through life, his favorite observation being “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

But Nelson soon discovers that some things do matter. He becomes a target for assassination when it is believed that he has learned about the plans of a Chinese bandit named Wu Lu Feng to seize control of Peking. Feng is being backed by a militaristic faction of the Japanese government.

Mr. Moto shows up to fight against Feng and by default becomes an ally of Nelson. Moto defends the idea of Japanese imperialism, but he belongs to a faction that wants expansion to be slower and less violent.

Not that Nelson really cares about that. He just wants to avoid being killed and he also wants to look out for Eleanor Joyce—an American woman who also gets caught up in the intrigue. Along the way, Nelson is surprised to discover that Eleanor’s safety is more important to him than his own.

Author John Marquand weaves a complex but logical plot and his prose really invokes a vivid sense of atmosphere. Remember that these novels were written before Chinese culture had been much influenced by the West. To Marquand’s readers, the Far East was pretty close to being an alien world far beyond their understanding.  Marquand plays on these cultural differences to help generate danger and suspense. But he does so without resorting to stereotypes. The characters in the books are often enigmas to one another—sometimes completely baffled by actions or attitudes of each other—but they are all believable and three-dimensional characters.

Here’s an example of how Marquand’s evocative prose could really set the proper mood:

There is no place in the world as strange as Peking at night, when the darkness covers the city like a veil, and when incongruous and startling sights and sounds come to one out of that black. The gilded carved facades of shops, the swinging candle lanterns, the figures by the tables in the smoky yellow light of teahouses, the sound of song, the twanging of stringed instruments, the warm strange smell of soybean oil, all come out of nowhere to touch one elusively and are gone.

It’s a great setting for an adventure story, one in which Nelson, Moto, Eleanor and another character are eventually captured by the bandits. Nelson, by now, has pretty firmly found his backbone and takes the lead in an escape attempt—though his lack of familiarity with firearms nearly gets everyone killed at one point. With Moto politely pointing out the wisest course of action, though, they just might manage to get away. And when the dust settles, we might just be provided with yet another example of just how ruthless the supremely polite Mr. Moto can be when the situation requires it.

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