GUMSHOE WARDROBE AND MEETING MR. MOTO
by Melodie Johnson Howe
Phillip Marlowe is certainly one of the great private eyes, if not the greatest. When we first meet him in The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler has Marlowe describe himself right down to his socks. Yes, his socks. “ … black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.” Of course the irony of Marlow talking about how well dressed he appears is made clear by the fact that he’s “calling on four million dollars.”
Stockings are not something you think about with tough guys. In fact let’s be honest. Men’s socks are not very sexy. They usually sag. Or they’re too short. If they cross their legs you can glimpse the pale hairy skin between the pant cuff and the top of the socks. (Unless they wear knee socks, which I don’t think Marlowe did.) Revealing this flash of skin lends a vulnerability to the tough guy’s masculinity. Yet Marlowe’s socks have always endeared him to me. Especially because they are wool and have dark blue clocks on them. I’m not sure what that design looks like. But I assume it’s something like a vertical row of circles maybe separated by dashes. The “clocks’ might have something like an X in the center or maybe they do have hands and numbers.
Conversely, I’ve always had a problem with Nero Wolfe’s yellow shirt which due to his heft is “the size of a tent”. The size is believable. But for me the color is not. If Wolfe’s taste is reflected in his subtle masculine surroundings then why would he wear yellow? But when I tried to come up with a better color for Wolfe I couldn’t. Red? God, no. Blue? Too business like. Black? Too gansterish, and it would make him look as if he’s trying to hide his girth. Wolfe would never think of such a thing. White? He’d look like he’s wearing a wedding dress. Hunter green? Not bad. But the color carries with it a certain kind of upper class pretension. And that is definitely not Wolfe. How about pastels? Pink? That might make his determined bachelorhood suspect. Orange? I don’t even want to think about that. I guess given the choices Rex Stout did come up with the best color. But I still can’t keep from flinching when I read the description.
When I was young I used to fall asleep listening to songs on the radio such as Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love? (One of the great universal questions.) The other night I fell asleep watching Law and Order, and I was left with these words rattling around in my subconscious: “Bruises on the inside of her thighs where he pried her legs apart. Dead about 10 hours. Strangulation.”
Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed and went into my office where I keep many of my paperbacks. I longed for Agatha Christie to take my hand and walk me back into her world. Alas, I gave away most of my Christie paperbacks when we moved. Time to replenish. I searched through my books hoping to find a mystery I hadn’t read. And I did! I’ve never read any of the Mr. Moto books. And there was Thank You, Mr. Moto, by John P. Marquand. My heart leapt. I padded (Okay I had socks on) back to bed, clapped my reading light to the book, and nestled in.
I was taken back into the world of 1936 to the mysterious city of Peking and the byzantine character of the Chinese. Japan was flexing its world-power-muscles by invading North China while the Communists were gaining power in the countryside. The unwilling American protagonist is Tom Nelson. When he’s not wearing a blue Chinese robe, he wears white suits. (I don’t know his preference in socks.) And he is hauled around in rickshaws. Mr. Moto, the Japanese agent, dresses in “well-fitting European clothes.” And the gold fillings in his front teeth glitter.
Marquand is an elegant stylist, intelligent, and a sharp observer of humanity. “It occurred to me that there is nothing in the world as bad as a well-bred Englishman,” Tom Nelson observes at one point. I fell asleep reading about Nelson pondering his servant, Yao. “His face had that placid, exasperating patience that is China. The cynicism and materialism, so refined as to be nearly spiritual, the bluntness and the delicacy of perception, the abjectness and the vanity, the bravery and the cowardice, the loyalty and the deceit — all those eternal contradictions of China were printed on it.”
I slept like a baby. Thank you, Mr. Moto.