In broad outline, this adventure novel—it’s not a detective story; the killings that happen along the way are bereft of mystery—conforms to the pattern of any number of similar yarns that unspooled in serialized form in The Saturday Evening Post during that magazine’s heyday. There’s an exotic setting (warlord-infested northern China), a quest (the search for Ming Yellow, an ancient and rare variety of Chinese earthenware), a jaunty all-American hero (Rodney Jones, a callow yet resourcefull newsman), a winsome heroine (a petulant yet worthy rich girl named Mel Newall), and a villain (indeed, several villains, including the slippery American-educated Philip Liu and the crude, “mud-faced” bandit leader Hei Ch’i). At a sentence-by-sentence level, however, Marquand’s first attempt at popular fiction shows the warp and weft of genuine literary art, with a texture reminiscent not of Sax Rohmer, say, but of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer known for telling a different kind of Saturday Evening Post story. Marquand, a novelist both of manners and of moods, delights in evoking the clash of a Western sensibility against the opaque Chinese mind and against a timeless Chinese scene. He renders the master-servant relationship in China, for example, with a deft hand and even with a note of profundity. Although traces of Orientalist bias are certainly present here, they seem far less salient than the author’s generally sympathetic portrayal of native characters and his satiric depiction of bumptious Americans in an alien land. His slyly engaging plot, meanwhile, has a sinewy shape and a lustrous finish that an Orientalizing Western reader might compare to a Ming vase.
JOHN P. MARQUAND. Ming Yellow (1935).