Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler (1959)

The title is literal. This longer-than-usual novel is a very detailed account of the passage of a small arms cache as it moves from the communist Malay bandits it originally belonged to, via a succession of intermediaries, on to Indonesian anti-communist insurgents. There is little or no violence for the first 160 pages. Instead, there are:

  • slow, patient, thorough and convincing portraits of each of the players in the game and of their various nationalities, British, Indian, Chinese, American and Indonesian
  • and lots of detail about the complicated import-export regulations of the region which, surprisingly, make for an interesting and satisfying story and a vivid insight into the people, mores, fragile political situations and murky business practices of the Far East of the 1950s.

The beginning and, especially, the ending, have the light feel of an Ealing Comedy rather than a gripping thriller.

The story

Girija Krishnan, the Indian manager of a white rubber plantation, has had a lifelong interest in British buses ever since his father went to England and visited a bus factory in Acton (!). He has treasured the brochure of buses since he was a boy, knows all the specs and descriptions, and harbours a fantasy about setting up a proper British-style bus service in the Malay jungle. It is the mid-1950s, and the Malay Emergency is at its height, ie westerners and their workers are threatened by jungle-based communist guerillas.

One day Krishnan is asked by the manager of the rubber plantation he works on to go and help in clearing up after some communist guerillas who have been ambushed and killed by British forces. Because he knows the area better than the British officer in charge of the ambush he deduces the guerillas must have been based nearby. And when he notices some of the rubber plantation workers who are digging the graves not being surprised at the bodies, he further deduces the guerillas have been hiding out near their village.

Krishnan sets out to investigate and his patient investigations eventually uncover the cache of brand new rifles, ammunition, grenades etc which is the McGuffin at the centre of the narrative.

As the ‘Emergency’ draws to a close, Girija Krishnan contacts a Chinese middle-man, Mr Tan Siow Mong. Their courteous and roundabout conversations wonderfully capture eastern delicacy and tact. Mr Tan himslf contacts his brother, Mr Tan Tack Chee.

The Chinese dealers know that they can sell on the arms but only if they have first been ‘authenticated’ by a white man, preferably an American. Coming out of nowhere they would be confiscated. Officially owned by a westerner they can be transported anywhere.

So Mr Tan tasks his niece’s husband, Khoo Ah Au, who chauffeurs tourists round Hong Kong, with finding a suitable American. After a few false starts, Khoo chances upon Greg Nilsen, the mid-western engineer on a cruising holiday with his wife which is going to take in Hong Kong, Manila, Saigon, Singapore. Perfect!

Hong Kong: The stealth with which Khoo slowly manoeuvres Greg Nilsen into becoming interested in the proposition is admirable and once he’s agreed, all sorts of wheels click into motion. Mr Tan comes to see Mr Nilsen in person and explains the deal. Simply for agreeing to be the legal owner of the shipment for however long it takes to find a buyer, Nilsen will be paid $1,000. He tells his wife. They both think it’s an adventure.

Singapore: Meanwhile, Mr Tan’s rather thuggish brother has been looking for a buyer and finds one in the blustering ex-British Army Captain Lukey. He claims to be the front man for muslim anti-communist insurgents in Sumatra. There is some fencing because although they are brought together by the unpleasant Tan Yam Heng, neither of them like him. Lukey takes the Nilsens out for an evening of curry and drinking over which he slowly persuades Nilsen that they can dispense with the services of the regrettable brother, Tan Yam Heng. Nilsen phones Mr Tan Siow Mong who reluctantly gives his permission (he will still make most of the profit on the sale).

Intelligence services: Nilsen has the unpleasant experience of being approached by a newspaperman for an interview about American tourists who invites him and Dorothy for lunch, introduces a friend of his and discreetly leaves. The friend turns out to be the middle-aged Colonel Soames, who has a position with British Intelligence in Singapore and knows all about this gun running exploit. He drops various hints and threats to Nilsen, who is not deterred…

Until Lukey tells him the cheque he will give him needs to be counter-signed in person by a representative of the Independent Party of the Faithful, an anti-communist Islamic insurgency in northern Sumatra, in the town of Labuanga – which is a plane journey away.

Nilsen hesitates big time: this is the first time he and  his wife have detoured from their holiday schedule for this business. But Dorothy thinks it will be an adventure to go off the beaten track, and so they agree to have their tickets bought for them and to go to Labuanga accompanied by Mrs Lukey.

Things turn nasty

It is here, about two-thirds into the novel, that it finally stops being a pleasant travelogue with interesting characters talking about import-export arrangements, and becomes increasingly tense. Labuanga is not an easy thirty-minute hop across the sea, it is a serious 2-hour flight to a monsoon-swept, muddy, filthy oil port. Here Greg and Dorothy are guided by Mrs Lukey to an isolated bungalow where they meet officials from the Independent Party of the Faithful, who are deeply suspicious of this fresh-faced American. Then, as they leave, the trap is sprung. They are surrounded by soldiers. Greg has the sense to put up his hands, but some of the others aren’t quick enough and are machine-gunned.

Greg is thrown into a filthy gaol cell with the Pole who, it quickly becomes clear, is a fascist who served with Nazi forces during the War. The American Consul, Hallett, visits and makes the situation clear: Nilsen has been caught illegally running guns to a banned insurgency; he may never see America again.

Gaol break

But the novel now moves through Drama into Melodrama as the rebels stage an attack on the gaol to free their Major Sutan before he is tortured to death by the Sumatran Army. The attack is successful but, rather improbably, the British and American consuls ring each other and decide they need to be at the gaol to protect their nationals: all of which leads to a complex situation where, amid the smoke from the bombs and slipping in the blood of the dead guards, the American Consul makes a Machiavellian suggestion to the leader of the rebels, Colonel Oda:

  • as and when they come to power, the muslim rebels will need American and British support – helping free these three prisoners will secure their governments’ friendship
  • General Iskaq will probably make out a safe passage for them, in exchange for the return of his deputy, Major Gani, in one piece

There’s more to it, involving the exchange of other hostages so neither side double crosses the other. The whole thing stretches credulity to snapping point.

Final act

And it’s as simple as that: Greg and Dorothy and Mrs Lukey are freed to be driven to the airport by the Consul, there guarded by the Army till a Malay Airlines cargo plane ships them back to Singapore, they make it back to their hotel, shower and sleep.

Nilsen is a lucky man: he now has a better grasp of what he got himself into. He asks British Intelligence officer Colonel Soames for a meeting, and thrashes out what he should do. They arrive at a plan which is to get Lukey’s counter-signature to the famous cheque, cash it at the bank but, instead of paying it into an account where Mr Tan can control it, cash the cheque and hand the money – all innocence – over to the diresputable gambling addict, Tan Yam Heng. Which is what they do.

When the news gets back to the respectable Tan brothers -Mr Tan Siow Mong and Mr Tan Tack Chee – they go very gratifyingly mental. They travel to Singapore for a tense family discussion with the errant brother who has, of course, gambled away over half the money.

Mr Tan returns to Kuala Pangkalan with not enough money to honour his cheque to Krishnan but is amazed when the Indian brushes it aside to reveal his fully worked-out plan to buy some reconditioned English buses, set up a service, on condition he has 50% of the shares and is general manager. The Chinaman is impressed by the Indian’s astuteness. Maybe they can have a beautiful future together…

Conclusions

  • Ambler is wonderfully cosmopolitan: once again the hero is American, not British, and almost all the other characters are non-British. The earlier novels gave a powerful sense of the politics and character of Eastern Europe. This and its predecessor do the same for the Far East.
  • Like the other post-War novels, particularly The Schirmer Inheritance, the book is patient and slow-moving, with a strong emphasis on legal and official procedures, the processes which allow the scam or plot to exist in the first place. This conveys a tremendous sense of verisimilitude and plausibility…
  • … up until the last 30 or 40 pages where the suddenly violent ‘thriller’ element comes in. Shame. Shame he couldn’t have devised a subtler climax with less bombs and bullets and bloodshed.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Wright: rubber estate manager
  • Girija Krishnan: his Indian clerk, who discovers the dead guerrillas’ arms cache.
  • Mr Tan Siow Mong: manager of the Anglo-Malay Transport Company which receives and ships Mr Wright’s rubber: Girija turns to him for advice on how to dispose of the cache.
  • Mr Tan Tack Chee: Mr Tan’s brother
  • Tan Yam Heng: Mr Tan’s other brother, in Singapore, a disreputable gambler: uses the pseudonym Mr Lee when he meets Krishnan, then later takes delivery of the arms one dark, tense night.
  • Greg Nilsen: American engineer and manager of a die-casting factory. An innocent abroad.
  • Dorothy: his wife.
  • Arlene: irritating, clumsy and rude American they get lumbered with on their cruise.
  • Khoo Ah Au: Mr Tan’s niece’s husband, who works as a taxi driver and guide for foreign tourists to Hong Kong and is tasked with finding a suitable American to act as legal ‘owner’ of the arms cache to make it legally shippable.
  • Colonel Soames: British police intelligence, Singapore: ‘discouraging the bad boys’. Tipped off about Nilsen’s activities, tries to warn him off.
  • Captain Lukey: disreputable ex-British Army, front man for the rebels in Sumatra ie potential purchasers of the cache. Persuades Nilsen to dump Tan Yam Heng and deal with him direct.
  • Betty: his stunning Eurasian wife: chaperones Greg and Dorothy to meeting with rebel representatives in a remote bungalow in the Sumatran port of Labuanga.
  • Major Sutan: official in the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • Captain Voychinski: Polish trainer to the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • General Iskaq: military governor of the Labuanga District; violently dislikes all white people after watching, as a child, his father be beaten and humiliated by the Dutch colonists.
  • Major Gani: General Iskaq’s cocky deputy, secretly a communist conspiring to arm his party.

British

Everyone behaves sensibly and maturely and intelligently until we arrive at Singapore and meet the British characters, who are public school stereotypes, all ‘old boy’ and ‘dear chap’ and drink too much, are shifty and permanently compared to naughty schoolboys. Maybe our men in the colonies really were all like that. No wonder the Chinese and Indians despised them.

The Quiet American

One page 104 their Vietnamese guide insists on taking them to locations which feature in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American the Continental hotel where the big bomb goes off, the bridge where the body of the American himself, Alden Pyle, is found. Greg is outraged that his country is giving aid to Vietnam whose tourist guides are promoting a vehemently anti-American novel. It is striking that Greene’s novel, published in 1955, had made sufficient impact to be referenced in a novel of 1959. Or is it some kind of joke between Ambler and Greene?

Related links

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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