Thank You, Mr. Moto, by John P Marquand

Thank you Mr Moto cvr

Readers who come to John P Marquand’s 1936 novel Thank You, Mr Moto from the films starring Peter Lorre will probably be surprised to find that Mr Moto plays a relatively small part in the story (and the film with the same name bears virtually no resemblance to it at all).  Set in China, all the stereotypes are in play: inscrutability, disingenuousness, double-dealing, a complacent sense of superiority towards foreigners, and a lack of sentimentality and an indifference to suffering in a country where life is cheap.  Yet Marquand displays a respect and fondness for China and its people, highlighting their intelligence if not robust code of ethics.

The story is written from the viewpoint of Tom Nelson, an American expatriate living in Peking after a scandal at home obliged him to resign from his law firm.  A fluent Chinese-speaker, he has effectively gone native and considers he has as good an understanding of the Chinese mind and way of life as any outsider can.  Having turned his back on the difficulties of life he meets every challenge with the shrug ‘it doesn’t matter, does it?’’  He is supposed to be writing a book but doubts whether he will ever get round to finishing it.  Among his large circle of acquaintances are Jamison Best, a shady English cashiered major, an American woman Eleanor Joyce, in China for some dubious but unspecified purpose, Prince Tung, a down-on-his luck aristocrat and aesthete impoverished by the fall of the Manchu dynasty – and of course Mr Moto, a Japanese government agent (not ‘the private eye of the Orient’ promised on the cover of the 1960 Fontana Books edition).

Tom’s relationship with Eleanor Joyce is initially prickly but they become intertwined after Major Best is murdered and it quickly becomes clear that they are next through having had contact with him.  The plot hinges on rare Chinese paintings which Eleanor is seeking to buy for an American museum, not realising that the sale involves their theft from Prince Tung by a brigand, Wu Lo Feng, who is planning a raid on the unguarded city.  Best had been involved in the sale of the paintings but had double-crossed Wu and so was eliminated, with Eleanor and Tom targeted in case they had been told of the plot.  Backing Wu is a Japanese provocateur, Mr Takahara, who wishes to utilise the chaos Wu will bring to extend Japanese influence over China.

Tom, Eleanor, Tung and Moto are captured by Wu and Takahara, along with Tung’s paintings, and taken to a small abandoned temple.  All looks lost, however they manage to escape when Eleanor unexpectedly grabs Wu’s pistol.  Moto disposes of Wu and Takahara, and the planned insurrection is quashed.  Tung is astonished at the turn of events, Eleanor’s impulsive action representing as it does western ‘illogicality’, as his oriental fatalism had prepared him for certain death.  Tom and Eleanor find romance, while Tom finally realises that however much he immerses himself in it, he will never be truly at one with China.  He finds that even Tung, whom he had considered a friend, looks on him as inferior.  Acknowledging that the subtleties (essentially rendered as deviousness) of the Chinese mind will always elude him, Tom shakes off his previous negativity towards life, finding that by changing his circumstances, circumstances have changed him.  He and Eleanor plan to leave the country, but not before they say, ‘thank you, Mr. Moto.’

Ostensibly a thriller, with plenty of action, Marquand makes valid points about the difficult situation in China and the growing influence of Japan.  Yet Mr Moto, while working for the Japanese government and bent on extending his country’s influence, is portrayed sympathetically and the more aggressive Takahara is shown to be the villain, even though, as Moto himself acknowledges, their ends are not dissimilar.  What does separate them is that while Takahara is willing to sacrifice the Americans, Moto endeavours firstly to persuade Tom to leave China for his own safety then, when that fails, does his utmost to keep them safe.

The result is to make Japanese expansionism in the power vacuum of post-dynastic China seem reasonable; as long that is as it is not done aggressively, like Takahara’s methods, rather in terms of altruistically proffering a ‘helping hand’ to ‘backward’ nations, as Moto perhaps ironically argues imperialist powers have done in the past.  Unfortunately the wider Japanese project in south-east Asia, for which Moto represents its acceptable face, is not examined at all.  Perhaps for American readers, like Czechoslovakia for Neville Chamberlain, it was a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom they knew nothing.  But not for long: history proved to be on the side of Takahara in China, before the Imperial Japanese Army set its sights further afield and brought mayhem to the Pacific.

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