by Eric Ambler
256 pages, Vintage reprint, 2004
Review by Maria Bustillos
This is a wonderful book. It’s not as much of a thriller as the more famous A Coffin for Dimitrios or Doctor Frigo, both of which I am really crazy about; Passage of Arms is fantastic in a slightly different way. But first, a little backstory.
Eric Clifford Ambler was born in 1909. He started life as an engineer, and then went to work as a copywriter for an ad agency. His first novel was published in 1936; he was in the Army Film Unit during the war, and worked with Peter Ustinov on “The Way Ahead.”
By 1957 Ambler was in Hollywood, and he stayed there for over a decade, writing scripts, including the script for “A Night to Remember,” and “The Cruel Sea,” for which he received an Oscar nomination. His wedding to fellow screenwriter Joan Harrison was orchestrated by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. And during all this, he managed to invent the modern political thriller. What a man!
Back to Passage of Arms, which was published in 1959, and written, therefore, while the author was in Hollywood, cranking out film scripts. This book could never have been turned into a movie in 1959, because the protagonist is an ambitious Malaysian guy who learns this big, dangerous secret, and there weren’t any movie stars who could have been cast in the role, or any studio that would have even tried looking for one (I wonder if these things were much discussed by Mr. and Mrs. Ambler?)
Anyway, if things go right for our brainy, quiet hero, he will be able to turn his secret into the sizeable chunk of cold hard cash he needs in order to realize his life’s ambition. There are a lot of scary political complications. Also, a ton of very unscrupulous guys are involved in the deal, each of whom can throw a spanner in the works, or worse. Toss into the mix a pompous, exasperatingly narrow-minded American businessman and his shrewd, pleasure-loving wife. What the heck, you’re thinking! This is going to be a catastrophe. So the story is just riveting. The situation is structured quite like a modern thriller, wheels-within-wheels in a way that was really new to the period during which Ambler wrote. And the book delivers on all levels, quietly but very effectively, just qua thriller.
But what I love the most about this book is what I call its Nevil Shute Quotient. As I mentioned last week regarding the novel Independence by Kate Kasserman, it is very appealing to read a book with very detailed descriptions of arcane subjects. Descriptions amounting almost to a series of instruction manuals. Nevil Shute was a master of this rare skill; he was a kind of precursor to Tom Clancy and John Le Carré, with their very thorough descriptions of sophisticated weapons systems and clever espionage techniques. But Shute, in novels like A Town Called Alice, turned the focus of his observation to quite a disparate range of topics: business considerations involved in opening an ice-cream parlor in the middle of the Australian outback, for instance. The making of a pair of shoes by hand. The courtship methods liable to be employed by a shy, awkward former POW. What you get with a great Nevil Shute novel is not a police procedural so much as a Life Procedural. It is in just this way that Passage of Arms shines brightest. Every time you have a bizarre little question, e.g. –why would the canisters be sealed that way? –what kind of wax did they use, and how come?–you will find it answered in the most elegant, compact and engaging style. This, together with the classic charms of a thrilling tale well-told, make Ambler’s books the best possible source of “a few hours' relaxation, or to while away the tedium of a journey,” in Maugham’s memorable phrase.