Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cultural Misunderstandings and Garroting Someone from Behind

Read/Watch 'em in Order #29

It’s just a coincidence, but I did a recent blog post about one of the original Conan stories in which dramatic tension was created by forcing deadly enemies to team up with one another. I decided to talk about other Robert E. Howard stories in which he used the same tension-generating method.

I didn’t stop to think that I was being thematically consistent with my Read em in Order reviews, but I was. It’s probably my innate genius working on a sub-conscious level.

Anyways, Last Laugh,Mr. Moto is the last of the pre-war Mr. Moto novels. It was serialized in Colliers Magazine beginning in 1941, so even though it didn’t finish its initial serial run and then get collected in novel form until after Pearl Harbor, this story takes place when the United States was still at peace.

The rest of the world, though, was at war. In fact, a French merchant ship—upon learning that France had fallen to the Nazis—stashed a plane it was carrying on a remote Caribbean island. The plane is important because it has a valuable new top-secret device installed on it. The ship is later sunk, so no one knows for certain where the plane is hidden.

That’s what leads to a situation in which deadly enemies are forced to work together. The protagonist this time around is an ex-naval aviator named Bob Bolles. Like most of the protagonists in this series, he’s seen better days. He resigned his commission after being passed over for promotion. Now he bums around the Caribbean in a sail boat, drinking too much and rapidly running out of money.

So when a married couple who claim to be from New York charter his boat for a trip to a remote island, he takes the job. But the couple isn’t from New York and isn’t really married. And their beefy Swedish servant isn’t Swedish.

By the time Bob figures out what’s going on, they’ve reached the island. But competition to find the plane is waiting for them there in the form of Japanese agent Mr. Moto.

This puts Bob in a rather precarious position. While the various spies decide whether to start killing each other or work together at least until they find the plane, it occurs to Bob that none of them really need HIM any longer.

Gee whiz, author John Marquand really succeeds in cramming tension into this story until it seems about to burst at the seams. Bob has to convince the spies he’s not expendable. But he wants to do more than just survive. Like Casey Lee from No Hero, he abruptly discovers that he still wants to serve his country.

That means he has to outsmart a gang of armed spies—including the unflappable Mr. Moto.

Like most of the Mr. Moto novels, there’s very little traditional action in terms of fights and chases. Here, the tension is built to extreme levels by the situation itself and by the dialogue, as the characters negotiate for temporary alliances and (in Bob’s case) look for excuses not to be killed outright. A scene near the climax, in which Bob plays a hand of bridge with the spies—knowing they are planning on killing him afterwards—is a particular nail-biter.

Last Laugh, Mr. Moto gives the previous novel (Mr. Moto is so Sorry) a serious run for the money in my choice for the best of the series. Sorry edges it out only because the love story aspect of Last Laugh is a bit forced. But even taking that into account, both are extraordinary tales of suspense packed full of fascinating characters.

That’s the last of the pre-war Moto novels. Though Mr. Moto is definitely one of the antagonists this time around, Marquand still manages to make him intelligent and likable despite his willingness to act ruthlessly to get his job done. Pearl Harbor would pretty much ruin the market for likable agents of the Japanese government.

But Marquand would bring Moto back eventually. The last novel in the series was 1957’s Stopover Tokyo, about foiling a Communist plot to take over Japan. Moto will be older and perhaps a little bitter about the war, but he’ll get to end his career on the side of the angels.

And it's been awhile since we've done a movie series as part of the Read/Watch 'em in Order series. I think we'll go through the Thin Man movies--since that gives me a chance to watch these films again. (Myrna Loy--yum!) We'll be doing another book series as well--I think we'll add some more science fiction to the mix and look at Otis Adelbert Kline's three Venus novels. 

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