Friday, March 03, 2017

"Passage of Arms" by Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler (1909-1998), writer of spy thrillers, is one of many authors that I've never read, though Len has read many. This week, partly because I recently enjoyed watching "Topkapi," based on one an Ambler book, I finally decided to try reading one. From our bookshelves, I randomly picked Passage of Arms, which was first published in 1959.

I've always enjoyed books and movies where a totally ordinary person is somehow suddenly the center of some type of deep intrigue -- as in this case, a very unimaginative couple from Delaware, taking a rather boring trip around the world on a small passenger ship, are recruited as agents in the sale of a cache of guns and armaments. For a modern reader, the conflict between Communists, rebels, old colonial ways, and so on is both distant and still pertinent -- some of the conflicts haven't really been resolved today. Remember, the Vietnam war was several years after the book was published.

The American innocents are not the only amateurs in the story, which takes place in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and other exotic locations. An Indian clerk on a plantation by chance found the abandoned guns. A family of Chinese businessmen had some of the needed connections. Even the American and British Counsels (who tried to help when the couple find themselves in jail) were neither spies nor agents. None of them had a real commitment to smuggling arms to Muslim rebels, who were aided by a self-serving retiree from the British colonial service and his Eurasian wife. Mostly, these innocents just got caught up in the temptation to make a lot of money -- or in the case of the counsels, tried to help.

Local color is a definite contributor to the atmosphere Ambler creates. The couple are both adventurous and easily frightened. One of the businessmen trying to convince them to sign dubious papers takes them to an authentic but not-very-clean Indian restaurant where they nevertheless find the curries delicious. Another time, a Vietnamese taxi driver/guide smells to them like fish sauce, and tries to convince them to tour a fish-sauce factory. I found this especially amusing as in the ensuing years, Vietnamese food has become pretty common. You can buy such fish sauce in perfectly ordinary American grocery stores, and find many recipes for a product that was then possessed of a completely mysterious and unfamiliar odor. In fact, much that was totally unfamiliar to these Americans then isn't so strange any more, for quite a lot of reasons.

I totally enjoyed the plot as well as the tightly written characterization, at times caricature, of the American couple, their tourist shipmates, and the strange collection of opportunists who managed, improbably, to employ them as arms dealers. Strikingly, the American couple, despite their flaws, acted brave and level-headed throughout their ordeal, and ultimately they were honorable and honest, despite their error of agreeing to the one strange request.

Passage of Arms seems to remain a pretty popular novel -- Google images shows a large number of editions.

1 comment:

Inkywhisk said...

I have never read Ambler but I love a spy thriller! Might have to see what we have available at the library. Seeing the changes in the covers is really interesting, too.