Passage of Arms (1959) by Eric Ambler

Source: Review Copy (British Library)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: Carriage (A rickshaw being a type of one)

Passage of Arms

This book came to me unexpectedly from the British Library. Ambler is not an author I have read much of. In fact I have only read Epitaph for a Spy (1938), two years ago, which I didn’t really enjoy. However, with my unexpected book I have decided to give Ambler another try. The British Library reprint has an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards who concisely conveys the range of Ambler’s work (far wider than I thought it was) and how it changed over time in terms of its social and political outlook.

Passage of Arms (1959) is set in southern Asia, taking place in Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore and Sumatra. The novel begins in Malaya and with an unusual puzzle. The reader is given three circumstances: an army patrol ambushing a group of terrorists near the home of Mr Wright, a rubber estate manager; the theft of some tarpaulin five months later; and then the removal of the wheels from one of Wright’s children’s toy scooters three years later. Taken separately they are not that unusual, yet Ambler clearly tells us that all of these events are connected in some unknown way. The art of detection in this novel is not used necessarily by detective figures, instead it is a skill employed by people such as Girija Krishnan (Mr Wright’s clerk) to obtain information which can be used to further his own ambitions in particular that of owning a bus service, an ambition built around the loss of his father. Krishnan manages to deduce from the ambush that the terrorists had left a cache of weapons behind, weapons if found could be used by him to raise money for his bus company. In a way the plot of this book embodies the butterfly effect as Krishnan’s omnibus ambitions unfold an epic journey from which violence erupts and endangers the lives of others.

A key problem which needs to be resolved for those trying to sell these illegal arms is that they need to legitimise the weapons by putting them into the name of a nominee who won’t be blocked by government officials from having them shipped into certain ports. An American named Greg Nilsen who is holidaying in Asia with his wife ends up becoming such a nominee and it is fascinating to see how various unpredictable factors lead to him accepting such a dubious role. It is perhaps less for material gain (as he would get a commission) than an opportunity for him to reassert his masculinity, power and control in defiance of a situation where he feels his wife is being taken away from him by a manipulative fellow holiday passenger.

To Greg this whole deal is just a game, an unusual holiday anecdote – a sentiment scorned by those in authority who try to dissuade him from continuing. Greg’s role in the arms deal is meant to be a simple one, one over in a matter of hours. In reality his role becomes far more complex and extensive ranging over several days, during which time Greg and Dorothy’s romanticised view of their adventure is brutally and promptly dismantled. Though Ambler, whose novel far from presents matters in black and white terms, concludes his story with surprising light-heartedness, reinforcing the importance of individuals in this tale.

Overall Thoughts


This book is categorised as a thriller. Yet I think fans of thrillers might be disappointed by this book if they enjoy such books for their suspense, tension and dramatic action, as for me this book doesn’t really have this, only having it to a degree in the final less restive third of the story. However I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. This is a slow burner of a novel and an inverted thriller in some ways as you know who is involved in the arms selling and it is the process of this crime which is of interest to the reader. Moreover, to merely label this story as a thriller I think does it a disservice as I think Ambler does much more in this book. It is a narrative which has a variety of moods and tones and has a great deal of realism, giving it a documentary/ travelogue feel as well.

The Characters

Although there are many characters in this book who all have a different roles and contributions in the process of the arms deal, Ambler manages to make them all individuals, who often have traits the reader can identify with. Understandably since this book is about an arms deal there are going to be many characters who are either criminal or morally dubious, yet in Passage of Arms characters are not depicted in black and white terms and their more vulnerable sides are revealed. Moreover, this is not a book which takes sides (which is possibly why Ambler decided to start with the instigators of the arms deals like Krishnan, rather than the American couple) and one of the characters who is supposed to be helping to clamp down on such arms deals does not personally condemn such acts and morality through this characters’ eyes is quite relative. It is not surprising that Greg says to them that they ‘change hats rather easily.’ Though perhaps they are just adept at seeing circumstances from all people’s points of view, something Ambler tries to do consistently throughout the book. I think what gives this book a different slant as well is that the characters are by and large not professionals who are involved in the selling of arms. They are amateurs from a wide range of backgrounds who are tempted by the chance of making money or having an adventure and only later on realise they have gone deeper than intended. Greg is a particularly interesting character as he is not an out and out victim or a crook. There is a mixture of worldliness and naivety in him.

The Socio-political Outlook

Independence Day of Malaysia
Independence Day of Malaysia

In Ambler’s wide cast of characters there are people from both ends of the political spectrum, with most people lurking in the middle. Malaya had only gained independence two years prior to the publication of this novel and I think Ambler touches on the imperialistic overhang well in the beginning of the novel. For instance there is the nonchalant attitude of those observing and participating in the ambush of the terrorists:

‘During the long silence that followed, Mrs Wright, a woman of character, calmed the servants and ordered fresh toast and tea so that she and her husband could finish breakfast.’

‘Girija, this is Lieutenant Haynes. He’s just wiped out a gang of terrorists.’

Yet Ambler moves on from such a position and shows a much wider understanding of the situation (culturally, politically and economically), looking at the various factors which contribute to people’s actions. For example the local villagers often aid the terrorist guerrillas, but not because they agree with their politics but because they fear reprisals, which they have insufficient protection from.

If any country in Ambler’s novel is being particularly addressed or explored, I would say it was America. A key assumption many characters either speak of or partially embody is of Americans acting naively towards Asian countries. Greg and his wife Dorothy are shown up by several characters for their ignorance of either their own country or of the effects their country was having in Asia. At the end of the book Greg is considering trying to back out of the deal. He says, ‘I’d been dealing in make-believe… just a lick of reality can be The Ugly Americanterribly uncomfortable and disturbing.’ I wonder whether Ambler intended this line to speak also to his readers more widely, especially in light of the fact that the Vietnam conflict was still ongoing at the time of the book and America’s role in Asia was not being seen favourably by some at the time as evinced by The Ugly American (1958) by Burdick and Lederer. However it is interesting that the person Greg says this to is contemptuous of him backing out of the deal: ‘You’d like to wash your hands of the whole thing, and make believe none of it ever happened.’ To this person what Greg has been doing is not a game and now that Greg has also realised this they think he should act responsibly (as ditching the deal could harm others), rather than run away from the problem. These views of course are just initial ones I have had from reading the book. I’m not an expert in these areas, so if I have made wild or erroneous assumptions/ generalisations kindly let me know, as I am keen to learn.

I also liked how non-western characters were given narrative space to share their own perspectives on Western people, noting the differences between them and their own culture. A limo driver in particular caught my attention for this aspect and it is interesting to read his take on the American couple, who he thinks are more transparent and easy to read. The story also touches on how Americans perceive themselves, which varies greatly depending on their situation.

Final Thoughts

Not sure I’ve found my perfect Ambler novel yet, though I enjoyed this one much more than Epitaph for a Spy. Reading this book though has shown me the strength of Ambler’s writing, which in some ways is not genre specific. Accordingly my rating is reflective of my enjoyment of his writing style, the verisimilitude of the setting and plot and the characters. Though I think for me personally I would have preferred more suspense and action.

Rating: 3.75/5


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