Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler

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Reviewed by Harriet

Passage of Arms

This is the third of Eric Ambler’s newly reissued novels I have read in the past few months, the other two being The Light of Day and A Kind of Anger, both reviewed in previous issues. I’ve loved all three of them, and am incredibly impressed with Ambler’s versatility. The Light of Day, filmed as Topkapi and starring Peter Ustinov, is a brilliant character portrait seen from the inside, as the novel is narrated by its central character, the nervous, shambling, insecure petty crook Arthur Simpson. And so indeed is A Kind of Anger, in which the narrator is the psychologically damaged Dutch journalist Piet Maas. Not an attractive-sounding pair, you may think, but they come alive with such sensitivity and understanding that you can’t help warming to, even admiring, them by the end.

A Passage of Arms differs because it is told in the third person, so we have the opportunity of seeing into the minds and thoughts of a variety of different characters. Set in Malaya and other nearby Far-East locations, the novel starts with a young Indian clerk, Girish Krishnan, whose lifelong ambition is to start a bus company to serve his remote area. He’s pretty astute, and knows the cost of this will be astronomical – he needs a working capital of at least 20,000 dollars, something he has absolutely no prospect of ever attaining. Or at least that’s how it looks. Then, by an absolute fluke of a chance, he stumbles across a cache of illegal arms, hidden during a communist insurgency. It’s clear that they have been abandoned, and Girish works out that their value would be quite enough to get his dream business off the ground. But how to sell them, that’s the question.

After a conversation with Mr Tan, a local Chinese businessman with some very dodgy family connections, a plan is made. All they need is an American tourist who is willing to act as the supposed seller. Luckily they soon happen upon Greg and Dorothy Nilson, recently retired and getting rather bored on the long cruise they had booked for themselves. Approached in the right way, and promised a reward of 25,000 dollars, Greg proves more than willing to have a bit of an adventure, especially as all it apparently involves is a quick detour to Singapore and the signature of a couple of papers. The Nilsons are not poor, but in 1959 when the novel was published this was a huge amount of money. So, having made contact with Mr Tan’s very untrustworthy brother, and having been saddled with a hysterical Anglo-Asian woman as part of the deal, they plunge in way above their heads and before long find themselves incarcerated in an Indonesian jail from which there appears to be no prospect of escape or even survival. Will they get out? Will Girish get his transport company? Read it and see!

I think what I like so much about Ambler’s novels is the refusal to take a moral high ground. Each of the three central characters is undoubtedly flawed in some way, and none is above engaging in obviously criminal activity to gain whatever their end may be. And yet we are never asked to judge them. Indeed they are all deeply sympathetic and likeable. I found Girish to be a most beautifully observed character – his boss, who underpays him shockingly, considers him reliable and trustworthy, and so indeed he is. He lives alone, cooks for himself, and is planning to marry a nice young woman from the local Hindu community. His plans for the transport company, nurtured since childhood, are wholly altruistic – or if not wholly, in the sense that he will become an important man in the community, at least they will be of great benefit to the local area. Under the circumstances, and given that the arms don’t appear to belong to anyone, he simply takes what seems to him to be the pragmatic approach. It has to be said that he doesn’t act swiftly – almost three years pass between his discovery of the arms, by chance, and his decision to make use of them. Since the penalty for illegal trading in arms was death, he is right to hesitate. But he’s a careful planner and doesn’t make a move till he’s fairly sure of success.

I’m not sure how familiar Ambler was with the Far-East setting of the novel, but he seems to have captured it brilliantly. The local inhabitants, whether Malayan, Chinese, Singaporean or anything else you can think of, are beautifully observed, and so are the Americans, Greg in particular; such an honest and law-abiding chap and so naively willing to enter into what turns out to be about as dangerous an operation as it’s possible to conceive.

Of course this is a British Library Classic Thriller, and as such has the expected intelligent and informative introduction by Martin Edwards. I enjoyed it enormously and hope you will too.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Eric Ambler, Passage of Arms (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356558, 256pp., paperback.

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