The Mr Moto Novels of John P. Marquand

  Portrait of John P. Marquand
   
John Phillips Marquand (1893-1960) was an American writer of some note, winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1938 for the novel The Late George Apley. He was a prolific and successful writer, winning both critical acclaim and commercial success. Critics consider him the foremost American novelest of manners of the mid twentieth century. Between his serious works he continued to produce a popular series of spy thrillers featuring the singular Mr. Moto, a secret agent of Imperial Japan. 

Twentieth Century Fox released eight Mr Moto films starring Peter Lorre. Except for "Thank You, Mr. Moto", the films bear little resemblance to the books in terms of plot or character. This webpage is dedicated to promoting the appreciation of Mr. Moto books, and not the films.
 Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto
 

A young Peter Lorre as he appeared
in eight Mr. Moto films
in the late 1930's.

  
The Character
  
Mr Moto is short slender man of indeterminate age who speaks perfect English as well as numerous Chinese dialects. He seems to have questionable taste in clothes (checked golfing suits on train rides, for example) has noticeable gold fillings in his front teeth and keeps his hair in a "Prussian Brush Cut" (an example). He has a proficiency with firearms, jujitstu, and is unfailingly polite. He seldom (if ever) resorts to disguises - he seldom seeks to disguise his presence in a particular theatre of intrigue; which may be good thing, considering his rather unique appearance. He is never the main protagonist of the story - rather he appears at strategic points in the story, a catalyst for action. "Moto", by the way, is not a proper Japanese surname.

the stories

The typical storyline involves an American male, somewhat tarnished by past experiences in the U.S., who finds himself in the Orient and is more than overwhelmed by the foreignness of Asia. This protagonist gets involved in some international intrigue by happenstance, usually coinciding with meeting Mr. Moto. The hero falls deeper into the plot and then finds himself in deadly peril. Along the way, he meets an attractive American woman who also becomes entangled, and by resourcefulness (and not a little help from Mr. Moto) overcomes the peril and then gets the girl.

Though this seems so very formulaic (and it is, really) you don't really mind it because of the atmosphere and the writing. Marqaund was a serious student of the craft of writing, and it shows. (And not all of the books fall into this formula).


Cover of Mr. Moto's Three Aces
Rather workmanlike graphic
design on this dust jacket
for the anthology
Mr Moto's Three Aces.

T
he Orient is portrayed as an unknowable environment to the American protagonists. Even when they are longtime residents (Tom Nelson of Thank You, Mr. Moto even speaks fluent Chinese) they discover that this cultural opacity means that an American will just never feel comfortable in the East. Marquand is able to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and fascination.. 

History and Attitudes

Moto, was, after all, an agent of Imperial Japan - a country that conquered so many Asian nations and treated their citizens so hideously. Marquand portrays Moto as a "moderate" in political bent. He represents those factions within Japan that advocate the slower expansion of their influence.
 
  Dust Jacket for Thank You. Mr. Moto   The passage of time allows for a more dispassionate view of things - Japan's expansion ran up against the expansions of Imperialist European powers in Asia (Britain, France and the U.S. in the Phillipines). It seems blatantly unfair to judge the Japanese as an "evil empire" when it was, perhaps, merely Japan's turn to play conqueror. Interestingly enough, Moto himself uses the term "Manifest Destiny" (the American justification of the conquest of the Native American) as the justification for his country's own ambitions. 

Does Marquand stereotype Asians as "inscrutable"? Yes, he does - but he is writing of an Asia that is long gone and from the point of view of isolated Americans of a type who (also hopefully) no longer exist.

 

Thank You, Mr. Moto - The
best book in the series.
Dust Jacket from a
1987 British edition.


He is not speaking of Americanized Asian immigrants to the U.S., he writes of warlords from the countryside, dissipated relatives of the Chinese Imperial family, Manchurian freedom fighters, and fanatical-to-the-point-of-suicide Japanese military zealots.

To an American of those times, dealing with these people are not the same as a going to Denny's to meet with Uncle George and Aunt Zoe just in from Boise. (And, apparently you still need a book on Japanese business etiquette to eat out with that semiconductor client of yours - "scrutability" books are available now, but they weren't then.) 

The books
  
Below is a listing of the Mr. Moto books, along with summaries. The summaries are written in the mode of jacket blurbs (and some of them actually are jacket blurbs) so that you will get a general idea of the plot, but will not have the plot spoiled for you. This isn't meant to be a collector's bibliography of the various physical editions, but I have listed the variant titles so that you will be able to avoid buying duplicate books under different titles.
     
Cover for Your Turn, Mr. Moto
Cover from a 1985 paperback
edition from Little, Brown
 
Your Turn, Mr. Moto (1935)
Original title: No Hero; originally published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, 1935 under the title of No Hero. Also Published as Mr. Moto Takes a Hand (British Edition).

Caught in a web of Asian intrigue and espionage, American World War I ace Casey Lee and the beautiful but dangerous White Russian refugee he has fallen in love with stumble into the way of the Japanese Emperor's expansionist plans for his country. Only Mr. Moto, number one secret agent for the Japanese Government, can extricate them, and yet his duty to his emperor must come first.

(Blurb from a 1985 Little, Brown paperback edition.) 

 
       
 

Cover of Thank You, Mr. Moto

Cover from a 1985 paperback
edition from Little, Brown: note
the resemblance to Peter Lorre.
And is that Alan Ladd there, too?

 
  Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936) 
Originally published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, 1936.

Cynical American expatriate Tom Nelson has "gone native" in the fabled ancient city of Peking. He is stirred out of his complacency when he is caught up in events involving a ruthless Chinese Warlord from the north, the expansionist Japanese Empire, stolen Chinese art masterpieces, and Eleanor Joyce, a lovely American on a secret mission. Add to this mix the implacable, ever polite Mr. Moto: will Tom Nelson find his way out of all this?

Note: This is my personal favorite of all of the novels. Marquand's portrayal of mood and atmosphere of Peking is superb.

 
       
 
Cover of Think Fast, Mr. Moto

Cover of a 1956 Bantam
paperback edition.

 
  Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)
Originally published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, 1936.

Young Wilson Hitchings is ready to take his place in the venerable family firm of "Hitchings Brothers, Bankers and Commission Merchants: Honolulu, Shanghai, Canton". His first real assignment is to travel to Hawaii and deal with the "Hitchings Plantation" a gambling house started by a black sheep of the family and maintained after his death by his lovely daughter, Eva Hitchings. Wilson's orders are to shut the place down before it does further damage to the staid family firm's image. Little does he realize that the plantation is the center of international financial intrigue involving Mr. Moto (of course). 

 
       
 

Cover of Mr. Moto is So Sorry

Cover from a 1963 Berkeley
Medallion paperback edition;
notice the narrow lapelled suit
of the early 1960's.
 
  Mr. Moto Is So Sorry (1938)
Originally published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, 1938.

Running from his past, American Calvin Gates is on his way by rail through northern China to Inner Mongolia to join up with an archeological expedition. The trip through Japanese controlled China involves his accidental involvement in coded secrets, the attractive American archeological artist Shirley Galloway, conflicting factions within the Japanese Empire and of course, Mr. Moto.

 
       
 
Cover of Last Laugh, Mr. Moto
Cover of a 1977 Popular
Library paperback edition.
 
  Last Laugh, Mr. Moto (1942)
Originally published in serial form in Colliers, 1941 under the title of Mercator Island.

Disillusioned ex-Navy pilot Bob Bolles' carefree, alcohol soaked days of drifting from port to port in the Caribbean come to an abrupt halt when he takes on paying passengers on his sailboat. The rich American tourist and his beautiful wife may not be who they seem to be, and their "Swedish" servant seems more like a rough and ready sailor than a butler. Why are they headed for the uninteresting and remote Mercator Island? Mr. Moto steps in when the action gets going, but will he come out of it with what he wants?

 
       
 

Cover for The Last of Mr. Moto

Cover from a 1963 Berkeley
Medallion paperback
edition: is the foreground figure
Mr. Moto, about to stab a 
second victim?

 
  Right You Are, Mr. Moto (1957)
Original title: Stopover: Tokyo; also called The Last of Mr. Moto. Originally published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, 1956/57 under the title of Rendezvous in Tokyo

Marquand's suave, smiling little expert on top level foreign intrigue is waiting at the airport for the American Intelligence agents Jack Rhyce and Ruth Bogart, when they land in Tokyo on a secret mission. The wily Mr. Moto joins the chase after an internally clever and dangerous international spy ring.

(Blurb from a 1985 Little, Brown paperback edition.)

Critic C. Hugh Holman considers this book to be the finest in the series.

 
         
       
         
 
Dust Jacket for Mr. Moto Four Complete Novels
Dust Jacket for Avenel's
Mr. Moto Four Complete
Novels; at least he doesn't
look like Pete Lorre....
 
  Mr. Moto's Three Aces (Thank You, Mr. Moto; Think Fast, Mr. Moto and Mr. Moto Is So Sorry) Little, Brown. 1938, 1956 and possibly other imprints.

Mr. Moto Four Complete Novels (Your Turn, Mr. Moto; Think Fast, Mr. Moto; Mr. Moto Is So Sorry; and Right You Are, Mr. Moto). Avenel 1983.

(If you get both collections, you still have to procure Last Laugh, Mr. Moto separately to read all of the books.)

 
 
  Bibliography
   
 
     
 
   
Dust Jacket for Stopover: Tokyo
Dust Jacket from
the 1957 first edition
from Little, Brown.
 
Links
 
 

 

May 16, 2012
http://www.csupomona.edu/~jskoga/moto
James S. Koga
jskoga@csupomona.edu