I've been meaning to read some Eric Ambler for a while, so was really excited by the news that the British Library were releasing some as part of their classic thrillers series. There's nothing like a new (to me, I know it's not strictly speaking new) book to push an author to the top of the to be read pile.
I know I've heard good things about Ambler before, certainly good enough things to mentally bookmark him, but I wasn't at all prepared for how much I would enjoy 'Passage of Arms' or just how good he would be. It was a proper light bulb/love at first read moment.
Written in 1959 'Passage of Arms' sits (apparently, this is what I read when I looked him up) in the second distinct phase of his career as a novelist (I think I've got a lot to look forward to). The late 50's isn't a time I know a lot about but there were enough cues in the book to remind me of the history I did know so I didn't end up looking much up.
The book opens in Malaya on a rubber plantation. The British army have shot some terrorists and the Indian estate clerk has realised they probably had a cache of arms hidden somewhere nearby. He's a young man with a dream that needs capitalising and a lot of patience, he manages to find the weapons and wait a good 3 years until it's safe to sell them at which point he goes to a Chinese business man.
From here things start to move, but before the arms can be sold its necessary to have a frontman for the deal, and ideally that would be an American. A suitable American is found and duped into taking part in the deal with vague talk of red China and selling communist guns to anti communists. The specific date the book is set isn't entirely clear but occasional references to McCarthyism are enough of a clue to start explaining the naivety of the American tourist who finds himself dealing with some very dodgy people in downtown Singapore.
Ambler's genius is in making the long lead up to the actual action, which mostly deals with the intricacies of setting up a small arms deal in a world of post colonial rebellions, communists, and Islamic revolutionaries, not just interesting but a gripping. It's also in making Greg and Dorothy Nilson's actions credible.
Why, after all, should a respectable, reasonably successful, middle aged American and his wife take such a risk? To answer that involves far to many spoilers, but by the end of the book all the pieces had fallen into place and it made sense.
There's something fascinating about a really bad decision, and all the smaller lapses of judgement and sense that lead up to it. Maybe it's the uneasy feeling that there but for the grace of God go I. In the end though, I loved everything about this book and can't wait to get stuck into more Ambler.