Monday, 13 April 2015

Thankyou, Mr Moto

This is a review of Thankyou, Mr Moto by John P Marquand for the Past Offences crime fiction blog's 1936 challenge.

John P. Marquand wrote straight novels about snobbery and the American upper class, but he also wrote spy thrillers set in the Far East of the 30s. This one is confined to Peking at a time when the Japanese were empire-building and China was ruled by shifting bands of warlords. Against this background, French, British, American and Russian businessmen and expats carry on life as normal.

The story is seen through the eyes of Tom Nelson, who has left a respectably dull life as a lawyer to live in Peking in a lovely old house with Chinese servants. Family money and the exchange rate probably makes this temptingly easy. A thoughtful man, he is intrigued and attracted by Chinese culture and philosophy. But he likes to ask of everything, "Does it matter?".

No snob himself, he has befriended a Chinese Prince, the dignified Prince Tung, who lives in a corner of his vast, decaying palace. He is also mates with a Japanese, Mr Moto. The drama begins at a party given by an American woman, where people of disparate origin dance to a jazz band. There are rumours of unrest, but everybody is tired of those. Tom bumps into Mr Moto, and an American girl called Eleanor Joyce, who has come out East and stayed. Is she just hunting for a husband?

Then an Englishman called Best invites Tom to dinner, tells him a tale about a sinister warlord, Wu Lo Feng, and next morning turns up dead. What was he to Eleanor and vice versa? Then Mr Pu the curio dealer appears with some priceless pictures thought to belong to Prince Tung...

The action becomes fast and violent. All our friends - and the pictures - get mixed up with the horrible General Wu. But the players insist on treating each other with elaborate Oriental courtesy, serving tea while threatening torture or death.

It is more of a thriller than a mystery, a breathless page-turner, and written by a skilled master who evokes a dimly unknowable city with empty, dusty streets, high walls, ancient gates, and the occasional rickshaw drivers' eating house lit by flickering lanterns.

What makes it 1936? The politics, and the sense that the Dark Ages are back. And Eleanor dancing in a tailored chartreuse dress and hat. And Tom's reliance on servants to bring him something to eat.

All the Moto novels foreground a young man and woman, with Moto himself hovering in the background. They were quickly turned into a Hollywood series. Moto is described as small and chunky, with protuberant eyes. Who does that remind you of?

The films were variable, with plots on loosely based on the books; Thankyou, Mr Moto is one of the more faithful. Peter Lorre played Moto with his usual skill, and Philip Ahn plays the renamed Prince Chung (who has acquired an effectively Oedipal mother). The movie Moto is more of a detective and a master of disguise than a spy or agent of the Japanese government, but we are never quite sure. The series came to an abrupt end, overtaken by events.

The literary Moto made one post-war appearance in a tale that stands up to the early examples. He is older, greyer, sadder, driving a taxi and given to saying "Poor Japan". The plot is even darker than before. I must read them all again - and Marquand's tales of the aristocracy.

Previous challenge here.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Howlers 12

Sam and Dave Cameron may be privileged, but they’re hardly “chinless wonders”, as somebody called them.

Arc Deco (Art Deco)

a blouse in cool creap (crepe)

It was written in Egyptian hydroglyphics.

Sliver ye timbers! (It’s “Shiver my timbers!” as in “shatter my planks”.)

post hawk, propter hawk (or talk), argumentum ad homonym (from Neal Whitman @literalminded)

I consulted the oricals. (oracles)

The genii was out of the box. (Genies usually live in bottles. It was the evils of the world who lived in Pandora's box.)

Have a looksy. (look-see)

From a bygone ear. (era)

The fires of our love are nothing but dead ambers. (embers)

It rang the death knoll. (knell)

O’Say Can You See (BBC iplayer site)

The singer was a real pre-Madonna.

They pulled off a real coupe. (coup, pronounced “coo”)

His explanation was inchoate. (incoherent)

The prices were draw-dropping. (jaw-dropping)

the strong arm of the law (BBC continuity. The arms of the law are usually "long".)

the tricoleur of revolutionary France (Times, March 2015. It’s tricolor or tricolore. Why not tricouleur? It just isn’t.)

There are about 600 million fossils proving creation. We keep asking them to show one fossil to prove evaluation and they fail to do it. (@harun_yahya)

a soluble but determined Irishwoman (Andrew Billen, Guardian. Surely “voluble”. His stuff is always full of typos. Does he phone it in?)

I take it to task, on behalf of all the other introverts, to share with you some little known facts about us. ( I take ON the task. “To take someone to task” means that you tick them off. But thanks, anyway!)

a perfectly coiffered hairdo (Mail, coiffeured) Euphemia has gone down for posterity as the possessor of the most famous pubic coiffeur in our history. (Times 2014-08-23. A coiffeur is a hairdresser – what they produce is a coiffure. And shouldn't that be "to posterity"?)

Football is occupying an uncomfortable moral ground. (BBC News. Try "in an uncomfortable moral position".  In a battle, whoever has the high ground has the advantage. That's why people try to occupy the moral high ground, metaphorically.)

Tattoos were once the preserve of sailors, prostitutes and criminals... Now they are most likely to be found daubed onto the skin of Britain’s middle class. (Times 2014-08-02. You daub paint onto a canvas – thickly, with a brush. Tattooing is more like etching or engraving.)

Bob Fosse cut open a new vein in Broadway dance. (Times caption, July 2014. When you “find a new vein” in any art or enterprise, you’re imagined to be mining a new vein of gold, not bleeding someone to death.)

A letter to the Times complains you can’t smoke a pipe in the street on a 10-minute cigarette break. “This may go some way to explaining the lesser-spotted pipe smoker. That, and the sniggers I seem to elicit from passers-by.” (Lesser-spotted doesn’t mean “rarely seen” or “vanishing”. A Spotted Woodpecker has spots. The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the smaller version.)

More here, and links to the rest.