Saturday, May 11, 2013

John P. Marquand, Think Fast, Mr. Moto


Opening Passage

It had not taken Wilson Hitchings long to realize that the firm of Hitchings Brothers had its definite place in the commercial aristocracy of the East, and that China had retained a respect for mercantile tradition which had disappeared from the Occidental world. There were still traditions of sailing days and of the pre-treaty days in the transactions of teh Shanghai branch of Hitchings Brothers The position of its office upon the Bund was enough to show it. The brass plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS was polished each morning by tje office coolies so that it glittered golden against the gray stone facade. Near by where the venerable plates of JARDINE MATHESON and of the HONG KONG AND SHANGHAI BANK. The plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS had the same remote dignity, the same integrity, the same imperviousness to time--which was not unnatural. That plate had been made when a branch of Hitchings Brothers , under the control of Wilson's great-grandfather from Salem, had moved up to Shanghai form the factories of Canton during the epoch when the place was little more than a swampy China-coast fishing town.

Summary: In 1931, after a considerable period of interfering in the politics of Manchuria, the Japanese invaded it and began a program of prying it entirely away from the Chinese government and assimilating it to the Empire. To this end, they re-formed it into Manzhuguo, or Manchukuo, the Manchu State, which it officially proclaimed and recognized in 1932. The Japanese installed Pu-Yi, of the Imperial line, as Head of State, and later backed him as Emperor of Manzhudiguo, the Great Manchurian Empire. The government was effectively run by the Japanese with Manchu figureheads putting a public face on Japanese vice-ministers who actually determined all policy. For several years after the invasion, there was strong popular resistance to Japanese involvement, with local Chinese forming fighting bands; this resistance was put down quite brutally by the Japanese.

Looking at it from the outside, the West had immense difficulty understanding what was going on in the region. In general there was opposite to this formation of an obvious Japanese puppet state, but this was more a matter of principle than anything. It looked to many in the outside world like the new Manchu state was bursting with progress. In a sense it was: Japanese efficiency combined with Manchurian resources were a potent industrial combination, and it became the major industrial center of the area. There were Japanese atrocities throughout the region, but outside of that area there was very little knowledge of them, and when there was, it was a dim sense of things that could not fully grasp the sheer scope on which the Japanese were operating. Likewise, the entire economic activity of the region, burgeoning though it was, was pressed wholly into the service of Japanese interests; the extent to which this was the case was also not widely known outside the region.

The events of our story occur right in the middle of this confusing period. Think Fast, Mr. Moto was serialized and then published in 1936. Much of the crisis is created by the attempt of a Chinese war profiteer, Chang Lo-Shih, is working with Russian agents to launder money and funnel it to the anti-Japanese resistance in Manchukuo. Mr. Moto, who, as is typical of a Mr. Moto story, has his split existence as the primary character who only shows up as if he were a secondary character, is out to stop this.

The basic means by which Chang Lo-Shih and his colleagues are engaging in their money-laundering operation involves, directly and indirectly, the Hitchings Brothers Bank, which is the reason Wilson Hitchings, youngest member of the family, crosses paths with Mr. Moto. Hitchings, of course, plays the obvious role of the Western mediator, the (in reality) secondary character in the structural role of primary character who serves as Western proxy to serve as a connector to Mr. Moto. Naturally, there needs to be a female love interest, in this case the fiery Eva Hitchings (a fourth cousin, if I have the family tree right) who is a thorn in the side of the family, having survived (when the Hitchings family had refused to provide much needed help) by turning an old family property in Honolulu, Hitchings Plantation, into a gambling house, and then keeping it that way just out of spite for the Hitchings family. Needless to say, it annoys the respectable Hitchingses to no end to have their name associated with a disreputable gambling house. Wilson is sent to try to solve this problem, as well as to determine whether the manager of the Honolulu Branch of Hitchings Brothers, Mr. Wilkie, is slacking off.

And that's pretty much the entire set-up of the story; everything follows directly from that. Mr. Moto, with ruthless (but very polite) efficiency, achieves his goals -- he is the greatest fictional secret agent prior to James Bond, so you can count on that, regardless -- but the interesting thing is always the way he does it.

Favorite Passage

When his servant had gone, he picked up a book to read;--a translation by Gilbert Murray of Euripides' "Medea." He began reading the play, purely for conscientious reasons, and because he had brought he volume with him, hoping sometime to read it; but when he reached Medea's first speech to the women of Corinth, the words began to hold him. The bitterness and the anger of that woman, whom he had always considered a pleasant girl in Hawthorne's "Tanglewood Tales," and Euripides' own knowledge of the depth of a woman's mind, filled him with reluctant wonder. There was the conviction of universal tragedy in the bitterness of Medea. Was it possible, he wondered, that all women possessed this latent bitterness? It had certainly not been manifest in his own relations with the girls he had met at home. They had been nice girls, happy girls, and their mothers had been contented and poised. Then, much as he deplored the conduct of Jason, in that it differed rather strongly from his own personal standards, it occurred to him that there was much in Jason which was universal also, and there was too much of Jason's psychology which he could understand. The Hitchingses had always been looking for the Golden Fleece. There was something of the spirit of Jason in all the Hitchingses--the same restiveness--the same relentlessness.

Vaguely, and inaccurately, he could identify himself with those pages of Euripides. Somewhere in the night sounds outside his room, the Greek chorus was singing a noiseless, mysterious song that was ringing in the background of his thoughts.... (pp. 24-25)

If the story had completely fulfilled the latent promise of this early passage, it would have been one of the great books of the twentieth century.

Recommendation: The basic story devices were probably more impressive in the 1930s than they would be today, but this is partly because they have been copied from this as one of the sources. The story nonetheless holds up fairly well, and Mr. Moto's deft handling of clueless Westerners and cunning (but outmatched) Orientals is as charming as ever. This is probably one of the better Mr. Moto books for light reading, although I have not read Right You Are, Mr. Moto, which is usually considered the best work in the series. It reads a lot like a stereotypical Golden Age movie, and this was certainly deliberate; all the characters, even the villains, have a likable quality to them, and it has an innocence about the matter, and a distance from the policies of expansionist Japan, that other Mr. Moto books can't always afford to have. Recommended for light reading; everyone should know Mr. Moto, and this is a good introduction to him.

Quotations from John P. Marquand, Think Fast, Mr. Moto, Berkley Publishing Corporation (New York: 1963).

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