My father has a fascination with antiquated mystery novels of the so-called Golden Age, like Ellery Queen and especially Earl Der Biggers’s Charlie Chan series. So when I saw that Otto Penzler was bringing out a paperback edition of the first Mr. Moto novel I bought it immediately as a gift, knowing that he’d probably pass it right back for me to read as soon as he was done with it.
Though I’ve never seen any of the Mr. Moto movies starring Peter Lorre I knew enough about them that when I cracked open the book I was expecting a detective story with Mr. Moto as the lead character. I could not have been more wrong. Your Turn, Mr. Moto (a title so generic I keep having to check to make sure I’m getting it right) is presented as a first person narrative “written” by an American pilot, K.C. Lee, who finds himself stranded in Tokyo after a planned trans-Pacific flight is cancelled for lack of funds. Unoccupied and unwilling to go home, Lee finds himself caught up in some international intrigue when he meets Mr. Moto and agrees to do a favor for him. Through Mr. Moto he also meets a beautiful Russian woman named Sonya whose involvement in all this remains unclear for quite some time.
Lee and Sonya sail to China on Mr. Moto’s errand but when a dead body turns up at an inopportune time Lee finds himself in peril. Escaping to the mainland he meets an influential Chinese businessman and starts to put together what is happening. It all has something to do with a secret formula that the Japanese and American militaries are both keen to possess and even more keen to keep out of the other’s hands.
I have perhaps made this sound much more exciting than it reads in Marquand’s writing. The prose has a detached feeling, with Lee’s arch humor and bemusement at the ways of the Japanese and Chinese locals thoroughly undercutting the tension. There is of course a romance between Lee and Sonya, though it is so clumsily handled it adds nothing to the story.
Eventually Mr. Moto finds his way back into the story and resolves the plot with a remarkably silly anticlimax. At the end you may well ask yourself, what the heck did I just read? And, why the heck is Mr. Moto the title character?