Girija Krishnan is an Indian clerk working on Mr. Wright's rubber-estate in Malaya. But what Girija really wants to do is run a passenger bus company. Well, we all have our dreams. But dreams like that require capital, and that Girija doesn't have, until he finds a guerrilla arms camp in the jungle nearby the village. There are people who will pay quite a lot for crates of guns, mortars, and bullets. Girija's going to need help finding a buyer, completing a sale, shipping the arms, all the basic details. Which leads him to a trio of Chinese brothers, now scattered across Southeast Asia in various narrowly legal trades. And that leads to Hong Kong cab drivers, British Intelligence agents stationed in Singapore, former British army officers, Indonesian rebels, Communist army officials, and in the middle of it, the Nilsens, an American husband and wife on a vacation.
I've spent some time trying to decide what sort of book Passage of Arms is. I wouldn't describe it as a thriller, or a mystery. What it reminds me of is something a bit like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Where you have the numerous characters, on several different plotlines, that all gradually weave together. Or collide head on. Even that isn't an entirely accurate comparison. Passage at Arms is much more tightly tied together from the start, but it has that same sense of how the wake of our passing can produce much wider, and greater effects than we imagine. It's also not trying to be funny. Or if it is, the humor is too dry for me to pick up on much of it.
It's still an interesting read. Nilsen seems meant to be a sort of archetypal American. He's generally cordial, but doesn't like having his judgment questioned. Likes to think of himself as being helpful, but wants to feel appreciated for it (both with praise and cold hard cash). Is not anywhere near as astute or wise in the ways of other cultures as he thinks he is. He's not unlikable by any means, he's just blundered in over his head, but he's eventually smart enough to realize and follow the lead of those who know.
"That Indian clerk was insufferable. He treated me as if I were a crook."
His brother nodded calmly. "I warned you he was no fool."