ERIC AMBLER Passage of Arms

  ERIC AMBLER – Passage of Arms. Bantam F2246, reprint paperback; 1st printing, July 1961. Original hardcover edition: Alfred A. Knopf; March 1960. Reprinted several times since, in both hardcover and soft.

   I am on record elsewhere on this blog in expressing my admiration for the first five pre-war novels Eric Ambler wrote, excluding his first, The Dark Frontier (UK, 1936, and reviewed here ) which wasn’t published in the US until 1990. Even the titles were terrific: Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm, Epitaph for a Spy, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Journey into Fear (as they were called here in this country). Each of them calls up memories of desperate times and ordinary men who fall into desperate situations.

   But Journey into Fear was published in 1940, followed by a gap of 11 years when Judgment on Delchev appeared. The latter is OK, but I think the hiatus cost Ambler something, or perhaps it was simply that the times were changing. Post-war Europe was not as interesting, spy or adventure-wise, as it was in 1940 and before.

ERIC AMBLER Passage of Arms

   Credit Ambler for changing with the times. Passage of Arms takes place in the Far East, for one thing, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and so on, long before anyone here in the US had heard of any of those places. The focus is a weapons cache discovered by a bookkeeping clerk in Malaya, set up several years earlier by Chinese militants and terrorists, and one worth many thousands of dollars today, if it could be gotten into the right hands.

   Enter a tourist named Greg Nilsen, owner of a precision die-casting business in Wilmington, Delaware. He and his wife Dorothy are taking a self-guided trip through that part of the world, and somehow before he realizes exactly how, he finds himself far in over his head as a not-entirely-innocent go-between.

   All to the good, but the story is static and barely moves, and it is clear from nearly the get-go that Nilsen and wife are one of those pairs of non-worldly innocents that nothing serious will happen to. Ambler knows the ins and outs of the underground gun business, and the lack of trust that exists between all of the participating parties, which is gone into in great detail, but if action or suspense is what you’re looking for in a spy novel, this one isn’t it.