Friday, July 22, 2016

Passage of Arms - Eric Ambler

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.


  1. I have read a few of Eric Ambler's books. All the one I read were written before WWII. The best of them was "The Mask of Demetrios" which was set in various parts of the Balkans. I have not seen any of his post war books before. Apparently he was a huge bestseller in his day, but they are harder to find now.

  2. I read this recently and loved it too. The other two new BL classics are equally good -- you've got a lot of pleasure to come!

  3. Did Ambler emerge from the mists of Greeneland?
    Or did Greene don Ambler's raincoat?
    Graham Greene paid tribute to Eric Ambler's invention of a nervy kind of spy story.
    A sense of place was as real as the psychology of fear.
    Vienna, Berlin, Bucharest, Istanbul.
    Before Greene and Ambler there was E. Phillips Oppenheim; one seldom sees his novels now.
    Ambler's A Mask For Dimitrios was a must-read even in the late Sixties.
    Filmed with Zachary Scott, Peter Lorre and the indefatigable Sidney Greenstreet (Greenstreet being the stuff of legends in The Maltese Falcon) the novel was said to be haunted by the international arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.
    Zaharoff's name is spoken fearfully in Morris West's novel about Gustav Jung, The World is Made of Glass.
    I did like the last of the Amblers.
    Doctor Frigo, the nickname of a medico who works the night-shift in a hospital in, I think, Martinique, is as dry as Mr Fleming's Martini.
    Send No More Roses and The Care of Time completed Mr Ambler's autumnal flowering.
    I read the first volume of his autobiography, Here Lies.
    But I could never find the second volume, The Story So Far.
    Eric Ambler worked with the cream of British cinema, and knew many others in the industry.
    In one of the later novels he is photographed for the dustjacket with his figure turned away from the camera.
    Looking out the window? At what?
    It reminds me of an essay entitled 'The Turned Back of Henry James'.
    J Haggerty