King Rat by James Clavell

Finally! A book review! I had read this a while ago, so I finally decided that it was time to give it a review. The book had a setting that interested me: a Japanese POW camp. Why would that interest me? Because the writer was a prisoner in the very same place: Changi Prison.

One thing I have to say before I start reviewing, is to keep in mind this is a fictional piece, and I’ve done my own research surrounding Changi. Looking at various sources, the living conditions of POW camps in the Changi in particular weren’t as graphic as the book. I’m not saying that POWs didn’t suffer; there were incidences that broke the Geneva Convention and the POWs must have been under huge amounts of stress, but I just remind you that the book does give its story some artistic licence. I won’t say anymore…


Changi Prison: the notorious camp where an alleged 90% of detainees never returned. Set at the tail-end of World War Two, American Corporal King runs the camp, having made his prison fortune on black-market trading. He starts to set his sights on RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter Marlowe, whose intelligence and multilingualism are desirable assets by. King becomes partners with him, with Marlowe being dragged into a world of illegal trade, deceit, and constant cat-and-mouse games with Grey, who wants them both punished for their actions

First thing first is the language, which is beautiful, yet confused me. I don’t know whether it was the copy I had bought, but finding spelling errors and repeated paragraphs really pulls you out of the story, but considering the archaic translation of different languages and vivid imagery, it was enjoyable, not-too-challenging read. When you get powerful phrases like this:

 "A cloud reached out and grappled the moon for possession of the night."

…you sometimes sit back and appreciate the writing. Well, I did at least.

The characters interested me. They interested me greatly. Clavell has an odd way of setting up our impressions of a character, only to turn that around later on. Marlowe seems fair, calm and honest, but is prone to outbursts and fits of anger. He starts to integrate himself in King’s world of business more and more, but then Clavell suddenly reels Marlowe back to questioning the morality of  what he is doing.

King on the outside seems like the untouchable, cool-headed guy, but does fret and act impulsively frequently, despite his fool-proof plans. And Grey, the antagonist of the book, makes it his personal vendetta to bring the two others to justice, but his honesty seems impeccable to a fault.

There are many many other characters. While Marlowe and King bump into a lot of other prisoners, interludes break up the narrative to look at the prisoner’s wives. Some seem a bit unnecessary, but others are very heart-felt. The main plot was also interesting with intensity and pace, but starts to wobble towards the end as clunky movements have to quickly tie up loose ends.

Er… I think I’ve covered everything? Let’s move on.


James Clavell’s King Rat is a bit of an anomaly to me. Its writing is something to behold, yet some characters and parts plot confused me at times. For the sake of not sitting on the fence, I would say that yes, it is a respectable read, but just tread carefully around some of the cracks.