#82 – Your Turn Mr Moto, John P Marquand BOOK REVIEW

October 3, 2018

Mr Moto

James Bond before James Bond. Doesn’t that sound like a good book? Well, sonny Jim, if you’ve already been following my reviews of Dennis Wheatley you’ll be aware he had a lock on the whole dashing English secret agent racket long before Ian Flemming‘s golden eye turned towards the genre. But what about if the secret agent wasn’t on our side? What if he was an adversary, seen only from the outside? That’s what we’ve got with the dastardly Japanese agent Mr Moto. Actually, I’ve been a bit unfair. He’s actually a rather honorable man, this Jap. I’m very, very sorry, Mr Moto. I do hope we can be friends, yes?

Your Turn, Mr. Moto is the first of the long-running series and you can tell that John P Marquand wasn’t necessarily banking on it ever getting that far, based on the original title: No Hero. That refers not to Mr Moto but to the narrator, one Kenneth C. Lee – K.C. – who is a washed up former flying ace kicking his heels in Tokyo, drinking the bar dry at the Imperial Hotel [1], until he can begin a trans-Pacific flight sponsored by a tobacco company. The company welshes on him and in a fit of dejected anger, poor Casey decides he’s through with America and wants everyone at the bar to know it.

That attracts the attention of Mr Moto, who makes an approach. Casey is hired to take a ship to Shanghai and ascertain if his old buddy Commander James Driscoll has possession of a missing blueprint. Thus is set up a tale of international intrigue as the US, China, Japan and Russia all attempt to locate and take possession of a secret formula to double the efficiency of gasoline, and thus redraw the world’s spheres of influence based upon battleship / cruiser’s patrol range.

Mr Moto movie

“So very sorry, Mr Moto”

Aside from being a damn good book, this one interested me because it’s written in 1935 and thus four years after Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and six years before Pearl Harbor. Marquand makes it clear what the international tensions are. Japan is a crowded island with few natural resources, and an eye on expansion into China. The US Admiralty worries whether Japan will attack Hawaii, which the USA had only invaded forty years earlier and still hadn’t entirely consolidated. Stuck out in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii was a permanent aircraft carrier and necessary hopping-off point should Japan wish to attack East, or the US do so to the West. Naturally, we now know how that turned out.

Few things are a surprise in world affairs, so it’s nice to see Marquand lay out the geo-political tensions and history has only confirmed the conjectures he makes. There are also frequent references to the Tokyo 1923 earthquake and the Japanese attempts to experiment with quake-resistant concrete structures. In the meantime all major Japanese cities are tightly-packed wooden structures that everyone knows damn well are vulnerable to firebombs [2] and thus Japan isn’t happy about China’s growing air force. It sets the scene plausibly for why the missing blueprint is so vital.


How vulnerable? This vulnerable

The narration begins with Casey’s last push into nihilism and rootless cosmopolitanism [3] with the fall-through of the trans-Pacific flight he was banking on for redemption. After agreeing to turn traitor, he has second thoughts and Mr Moto attempts to have him assassinated during his passage to China (he’s so very, very sorry about that, you understand). Casey rediscovers his Americanism, goes full-MAGA, and then foils the plans of both China and Japan. It’s nicely done.

I enjoyed how Marquand painted 1930s Tokyo because, while not living there myself until 70 years later, it felt just how I’d pictured it – a hybrid between old-Edo and new European fashion. Shanghai is presented as a bustling seething mass of ant-like people and not unlike the Chinatowns of Fu Manchu stories. Unlike a James Bond story, Casey is a rank amateur relying on gut instinct and unaware how many pros are protecting him behind the scenes. Mr Moto himself is a savvy agent and a strict professional and the concluding scenes make clear he hold no enmity to the agents in rival powers.

I’ve read four Mr Moto books now and can absolutely recommend them. They’ll especially appeal to ex-pats in Asia who have suffered bouts of anomie and the pull of globalism.

If you’re a proud American and also like skirt, check out my new Sigma Wolf bookshop where you can buy full colour editions of all my books, in both soft or hardcover, without having to fuck around with sending me PayPal payments. Sadly, the site cannot yet sell to territories outside the USA.


Looking forward to reading this entry in the series.

[1] Something I once did on a business trip in my pre-game life, as it happens. A lovely hotel.
[2] The USA would confirm this in the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo that killed vastly more civilians than the two atomic bombs did.
[3] Don’t worry, he’s not a Jew.

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