King Rat (Clavell novel)

This article is about the 1962 James Clavell novel. For the 1998 China Miéville novel, see King Rat (Miéville novel).
King Rat

1st Edition hardback
Author James Clavell
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Asian Saga
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Little, Brown and Company (US) and Martin Joseph (UK)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback and Paperback)
Preceded by Gai-Jin
Followed by Noble House

King Rat is a 1962 novel by James Clavell and the author's literary debut. Set during World War II, the novel describes the struggle for survival of American, Australian, British, Dutch, and New Zealander prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore—a description informed by Clavell's own three-year experience as a prisoner in the notorious Changi Prison camp. One of the major characters, Peter Marlowe, is based upon Clavell's younger self.

Despite its fearsome reputation, Changi was among the better-run Japanese camps, with only 850 deaths among the 87,000 prisoners who passed through.[1]

King Rat was the first book published of Clavell's sweeping series, the Asian Saga, and the fourth chronologically. Two characters from King Rat also appear in Noble House (1981).

Plot summary

The novel opens in early 1945. Peter Marlowe, a young British RAF Flight Lieutenant, has been a P.O.W. since 1942. Marlowe comes to the attention of the "King" (an American corporal who has become the most successful trader and black marketeer in Changi), when the King sees him conversing in Malay. Marlowe's languages, intelligence, honesty, and winning personality cause the King to befriend him and attempt to involve him in black market deals, which bring Marlowe to the attention of Robin Grey, a British officer and Provost Marshal of the camp, who has developed a Javert-like obsession with the King and hopes to arrest him for violating camp regulations. Grey is attempting to maintain military discipline among the prisoners and sees the King as the antithesis of his beliefs. As the son of a working-class family, Grey follows the rules for their own sake using his position as Provost Marshal to gain a status otherwise unavailable to him in British society.

Despite being an enlisted man and undistinguished in civilian life, the King has become a major power in the closed society of the P.O.W. camp through his charisma and intelligence. Trading with Korean guards, local Malay villagers, and other prisoners for food, clothing, information, and what few luxuries are available, the King keeps himself and his fellow American prisoners alive. Senior officers come to him for help in selling their valuables to buy food, and other officers are secretly on his payroll. Marlowe is initially put off by the King's perspective and behavior, which clash with the British upper class ideals he has been taught. He turns down a lucrative business partnership with the King because "Marlowes aren't tradesmen. It just isn't done, old boy". Marlowe soon understands that the King is not the thief and con artist that Grey would have him believe. Rather, the King asks for the best of each man and rewards him accordingly, irrespective of class or position.

Through the experiences of Marlowe, the King, and other characters, the novel offers a vivid, often disturbing portrayal of men brought to the edge of survival by a brutal environment. The P.O.Ws are given nothing by the Japanese other than filthy huts to live in and the bare minimum of food. Officers from various parts of Britain's Asian empire, accustomed to having native servants provide them with freshly laundered uniforms daily, are reduced to wearing rags and homemade shoes. For most, the chief concern is obtaining enough food to stay alive from day to day and avoiding disease or injury, since almost no medical care is available. Some are degraded and come close to losing their humanity, while others display levels of courage and compassion beyond expectations. Some literally steal food out the mouths of their comrades, while others give away what they have or take terrible risks to help their friends.

Rats are bred for food, and in the end are abandoned in their cages when the camp is liberated. The final scene shows the rats consuming each other one by one, with the final survivor becoming "king of the rats".

Characters in "King Rat"

Two characters from King Rat also appear in Noble House (published 1981), a novel set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, when Marlowe is a writer visiting Hong Kong to conduct research about the great British trading companies there. Grey, embittered by his failure to obtain a commission in the postwar British Army despite his suffering during the war, has become a radical socialist Member of Parliament and is also in Hong Kong on an official visit. Unknown to Marlowe, Grey has become a secret Communist and a Soviet agent who tries to thwart efforts to improve relations between China and the West.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

An Americanized film adaptation was released in 1965, the first of several of Clavell's novels to be so adapted. The character of the King was altered to Clavell's dismay, to make him more "understandable" to an American audience.

See also


  1. Kevin Blackburn (2000). "Commemorating and commodifying the prisoner of war experience in south-east Asia: The creation of Changi Prison Museum". Journal of the Australian War Memorial (33). Retrieved 2007-01-26.
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