King Rat

King Rat

by James Clavell


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Japanese POW camp Changi, Singapore: hell on earth for the soldiers contained within its barbed wire walls. Officers and enlisted men, all prisoners together, yet the old hierarchies and rivalries survive. An American corporal, known as the King, has used his personality and wiles to facilitate trading with guards and locals to get needed food, supplies, even information into the camp. The imprisoned upper-class officers have never had to do things for themselves, and now they are reduced to wearing rags while the King’s clean shirt, gained through guts and moxie, seems like luxury in comparison. In the camp, everything has its price and everything is for sale. But trading is illegal—and the King has made a formidable enemy. Robin Grey, the provost marshal, hates the King and all he represents. Grey, though he grew up modestly, fervently believes in the British class system: everyone should know their place, and he knows the King’s place is at the bottom.

The King does have a friend in Peter Marlowe, who, though wary of the King and himself a product of the British system, finds himself drawn to the charismatic man who just might be the only one who can save them from both the inhumanity of the prison camp but also from themselves. Powerful and engrossing, King Rat artfully weaves the author’s own World War II prison camp experiences into a compelling narrative of survival amidst the grim realities of war and what men can do when pushed to the edge. A taut masterwork of World War II historical fiction by bestselling author James Clavell.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982537593
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Series: Asian Saga Series , #4
Edition description: Reprint
Sales rank: 80,113
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

James Clavell (1921–1994) was a novelist, screenwriter, director, and World War II veteran and prisoner of war. He is best known for his epic Asian Saga novels, which launched with the 1962 bestseller King Rat, and their televised adaptations. He also wrote screenplays for such films as The Great Escape and The Fly, and was a writer, director, and producer on To Sir, with Love. His books Shōgun, Noble House, Tai-Pan, and Whirlwind were #1 New York Times bestsellers.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

“I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.” Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he had spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot. The venom in Grey’s voice snapped Sergeant Masters out of his reverie. He had been thinking about a bottle of ice-cold Australian beer and a steak with a fried egg on top and his home in Sydney and his wife and the breasts and smell of her. He didn’t bother to follow the lieutenant’s gaze out the window. He knew who it had to be among the half-naked men walking the dirt path which skirted the barbed fence. But he was surprised at Grey’s outburst. Usually the Provost Marshal of Changi was as tight-lipped and unapproachable as any Englishman.

 “Save your strength, Lieutenant,” Masters said wearily, “the Japs’ll fix him soon enough.” 

“Bugger the Japs,” Grey said. “I want to catch him. I want him in this jail. And when I’ve done with him—I want him in Utram Road Jail.” Masters looked up aghast. “Utram Road?” 


“My oath, I can understand you wanting to get him,” Masters said, “but, well, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” 

“That’s where he belongs. And that’s where I’m going to put him. Because he’s a thief, a liar, a cheat and a bloodsucker. A bloody vampire who feeds on the rest of us.” 

Grey got up and went closer to the window of the sweltering MP hut. He waved at the flies which swarmed from the plank floors and squinted his eyes against the refracted glare of the high noon light beating the packed earth. “By God,” he said, “I’ll have vengeance for all of us.” 

Good luck, mate, Masters thought. You can get the King if anyone can. You’ve got the right amount of hate in you. Masters did not like officers and did not like Military Police. He particularly despised Grey, for Grey had been promoted from the ranks and tried to hide this fact from others. 

But Grey was not alone in his hatred. The whole of Changi hated the King. They hated him for his muscular body, the clear glow in his blue eyes. In this twilight world of the half alive there were no fat or well-built or round or smooth or fair-built or thick-built men. There were only faces dominated by eyes and set on bodies that were skin over sinews over bones. No difference between them but age and face and height. And in all this world, only the King ate like a man, smoked like a man, slept like a man, dreamed like a man and looked like a man. 

“You,” Grey barked. “Corporal! Come over here!” 

The King had been aware of Grey ever since he had turned the corner of the jail, not because he could see into the blackness of the MP hut but because he knew that Grey was a person of habit and when you have an enemy it is wise to know his ways. The King knew as much about Grey as any man could know about another. 

He stepped off the path and walked towards the lone hut, set like a pimple among sores of other huts. 

“You wanted me, sir?” the King said, saluting. His smile was bland. His sun glasses veiled the contempt of his eyes. 

From his window, Grey stared down at the King. His taut features hid the hate that was part of him. “Where are you going?” 

“Back to my hut. Sir,” the King said patiently, and all the time his mind was figuring angles—had there been a slip, had someone informed, what was with Grey? 

“Where did you get that shirt?” 

The King had bought the shirt the day before from a major who had kept it neat for two years against the day he would need to sell it for money to buy food. The King liked to be tidy and well-dressed when everyone else was not, and he was pleased that today his shirt was clean and new and his long pants were creased and his socks clean and his shoes freshly polished and his hat stainless. It amused him that Grey was naked but for pathetically patched short pants and wooden clogs, and a Tank Corps beret that was green and solid with tropic mold. 

“I bought it,” the King said. “Long time ago. There’s no law against buying anything—here, anywheres else. Sir.” 

Grey felt the impertinence in the “Sir.” “All right, Corporal, inside!” 


“I just want a little chat,” Grey said sarcastically. 

The King held his temper and walked up the steps and through the doorway and stood near the table. “Now what? Sir.” 

“Turn out your pockets.” 


“Do as you’re told. You know I’ve the right to search you at any time.” Grey let some of his contempt show. “Even your commanding officer agreed.” 

“Only because you insisted on it.” 

“With good reason. Turn out your pockets!” 

Wearily the King complied. After all, he had nothing to hide. Hand - kerchief, comb, wallet, one pack of tailor-made cigarettes, his tobacco box full of raw Java tobacco, rice cigarette papers, matches. Grey made sure all pockets were empty, then opened the wallet. There were fifteen American dollars and nearly four hundred Japanese Singapore dollars.

“Where did you get this money?” Grey snapped, the ever-present sweat dripping from him. 

“Gambling. Sir.” 

Grey laughed mirthlessly. “You’ve a lucky streak. It’s been good for nearly three years. Hasn’t it?” 

“You through with me now? Sir.” 

“No. Let me look at your watch.” 

“It’s on the list—” 

“I said let me look at your watch!” 

Grimly the King pulled the stainless steel expanding band off his wrist and handed it to Grey. 

In spite of his hatred of the King, Grey felt a shaft of envy. The watch was waterproof, shockproof, self-winding. An Oyster Royal. The most priceless possession of Changi—other than gold. He turned the watch over and looked at the figures etched into the steel, then went over to the atap wall and took down the list of the King’s possessions and automatically wiped the ants off it, and meticulously checked the number of the watch against the number of the Oyster Royal watch on the list. 

“It checks,” the King said. “Don’t worry. Sir.” 

“I’m not worried,” Grey said. “It’s you who are to be worried.” He handed the watch back, the watch that could bring nearly six months of food. 

The King put the watch back on his wrist and began to pick up his wallet and other things. 

“Oh yes. Your ring!” Grey said. “Let’s check that.” 

But the ring checked with the list too. It was itemed as A gold ring, signet of the Clan Gordon. Alongside the description was an example of the seal. “How is it an American has a Gordon ring?” Grey had asked the same question many times. 

“I won it. Poker,” the King said. 

“Remarkable memory you’ve got, Corporal,” Grey said and handed it back. He had known all along that the ring and the watch would check. He had only used the search as an excuse. He felt compelled, almost masochistically, to be near his prey for just a while. He knew, too, that the King did not scare easily. Many had tried to catch him, and failed, for he was smart and careful and very cunning. 

“Why is it,” Grey asked harshly, suddenly boiling with envy of the watch and ring and cigarettes and matches and money, “that you have so much and the rest of us nothing?” 

“Don’t know. Sir. Guess I’m just lucky.” 

“Where did you get this money?” 

“Gambling. Sir.” The King was always polite. He always said “Sir” to officers and saluted officers, English and Aussie officers. But he knew they were aware of the vastness of his contempt for “Sir” and saluting. It wasn’t the American way. A man’s a man, regardless of background or family or rank. If you respect him, you call him “Sir.” If you don’t, you don’t, and it’s only the sons of bitches that object. To hell with them! 

The King put the ring back on his finger, buttoned down his pockets and flicked some dust off his shirt. “Will that be all? Sir.” He saw the anger flash in Grey’s eyes. 

Then Grey looked across at Masters, who had been watching nervously. “Sergeant, would you get me some water, please?” 

Wearily Masters went over to the water bottle that hung on the wall. “Here you are, sir.” 

“That’s yesterday’s,” Grey said, knowing it was not. “Fill it with clean water.” 

“I could’ve swore I filled it first thing,” Masters said. Then, shaking his head, he walked out. 

Grey let the silence hang and the King stood easily, waiting. A breath of wind rustled the coconut trees that soared above the jungle just outside the fence, bringing the promise of rain. Already there were black clouds rimming the eastern sky, soon to cover the sky. Soon they would turn dust into bog and make humid air breathable. 

“You like a cigarette? Sir,” the King said, offering the pack. 

The last time Grey had had a tailor-made cigarette was two years before, on his birthday. His twenty-second birthday. He stared at the pack and wanted one, wanted them all. “No,” he said grimly. “I don’t want one of your cigarettes.” 

“You don’t mind if I smoke? Sir.” 

“Yes I do!” 

The King kept his eyes fixed on Grey’s and calmly slipped out a cigarette. He lit it and inhaled deeply. 

“Take that out of your mouth!” Grey ordered. 

“Sure. Sir.” The King took a long slow drag before obeying. Then he hardened. “I’m not under your orders and there’s no law that says I can’t smoke when I want to. I’m an American and I’m not subject to any goddam flag-waving Union Jack! That’s been pointed out to you too. Get off my back! Sir.” 

“I’m after you now, Corporal,” Grey erupted. “Soon you’re going to make a slip, and when you do I’ll be waiting and then you’ll be in there.” His finger was shaking as he pointed at the crude bamboo cage which served as a cell. “That’s where you belong.” 

“I’m breaking no laws—” 

“Then where do you get your money?” 

“Gambling.” The King moved closer to Grey. His anger was controlled, but he was more dangerous than usual. “Nobody gives me nothing. What I have is mine and I made it. How I made it is my own business.” 

“Not while I’m Provost Marshal.” Grey’s fists tightened. “Lot of drugs have been stolen over the months. Maybe you know something about them.” 

“Why you— Listen,” the King said furiously, “I’ve never stolen a thing in my life. I’ve never sold drugs in my life and don’t you forget it! Goddammit, if you weren’t an officer I’d—” 

“But I am and I’d like you to try. By God I would! You think you’re so bloody tough. Well, I know you’re not.” 

“I’ll tell you one thing. When we get through this shit of Changi, you come looking for me and I’ll hand you your head.” 

“I won’t forget!” Grey tried to slow his pumping heart. “But remember, until that time I’m watching and waiting. I’ve never heard of a run of luck that didn’t sometime run out. And yours will!” 

“Oh no it won’t! Sir.” But the King knew that there was a great truth in that. His luck had been good. Very good. But luck is hard work and planning and a little something besides, and not gambling. At least not unless it was a calculated gamble. Like today and the diamond. Four whole carats. At last he knew how to get his hands on it. When he was ready. And if he could make this one deal, it would be the last, and there would be no more need to gamble—not here in Changi. 

“Your luck’ll run out,” Grey said malevolently. “You know why? Because you’re like all criminals. You’re full of greed—” 

“I don’t have to take this crap from you,” the King said, and his rage snapped. “I’m no more a criminal than—” 

“Oh but you are. You break the law all the time.” 

“The hell I do. Jap law may say—” 

“To hell with Jap law. I’m talking about camp law. Camp law says no trading. That’s what you do!” 

“Prove it!” 

“I will in time. You’ll make one slip. And then we’ll see how you survive along with the rest of us. In my cage. And after my cage, I’ll personally see that you’re sent to Utram Road!” 

The King felt a horror-chill rush into his heart and into his test i cles. “Jesus,” he said tightly. “You’re just the sort of bastard who’d do that!” 

“In your case,” Grey said, and there was foam on his lips, “it’d be a plea - sure. The Japs are your friends!” 

“Why, you son of a bitch!” The King bunched a hamlike fist and moved towards Grey. 

“What’s going on here, eh?” Colonel Brant said as he stomped up the steps and entered the hut. He was a small man, barely five feet, and his beard rolled Sikh style under his chin. He carried a swagger cane. His peaked army cap was peakless and all patched with sackcloth; in the center of it, the emblem of a regiment shone like gold, smooth with years of burnishing. 

“Nothing—nothing, sir.” Grey waved at the sudden fly-swarm, trying to control his breathing. “I was just—searching Corporal—” 

“Come now, Grey,” Colonel Brant interrupted testily. “I heard what you said about Utram Road and the Japs. It’s perfectly in order to search him and question him, everyone knows that, but there’s no reason to threaten or abuse him.” He turned to the King, his forehead beaded with sweat. “You, Corporal. You should thank your lucky stars I don’t report you to Captain Brough for discipline. You should know better than to go around dressed like that. Enough to drive any man out of his mind. Just asking for trouble.” 

From the Paperback edition.

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King Rat 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an incredible story of a little known side of WWII, that of the plight of prisoners in a Japanese camp. The story revolves around a group of prisoners in Changi. The main characters are Peter Marlowe, a British pilot 'I believe', and an American nicknamed 'The King' because of his status in the black market area. Pilots 'Shogun's Blackthorne' and skillful, but honorable traders 'Dirk Sturan' are to become central in Clavell's other works. Besides the central characters, there is the gay actor that loves to perform in plays, the engineer who builds a miniature radio, the corrupt British officer, the Japanese camp commander, the Chinese trader, and the scheming prisoners seeking to dethrone 'The King'. To me there is much interesting subjects of discussion in this book, all the more relevant today. It is a microcosom of our world. Why is 'The King' able to have coffee, eggs, extra rice, even cigarrettes, while the rest are undernourished? Is that morally right? I think at the end of the novel, Clavell has the answer, but let's apply this to a much bigger canvas: why should people starve in Africa, Asia, while the people of rich nations are fat, way way fat? The elaborate accounts of various trades are fascinating. 'The King', and perhaps Clavell, seem to have an innate understanding of how 'things work' in Asia, and they are able to thrive. Clavell, the ex-prisoner, would go on to write masterful novels of Japan, he is skilled as an interpreter, really making us understand the cultural differences, and clearly you can see he got his start here with this book. I also highly recommend the audio book, by Lee I believe, he brings to life the various accents, Chinese, British, Aussie. I have to disagree with the previous comment at the end of a decent review, that seems to say, because of the claim that only 2% died in Changi, it wasn't as bad as Clavell writes it. Well, first, I take a little more authenticity from someone who was actually a prisoner in the camp than an armchair historian. Secondly, Clavell never writes Changi was horrific, they have their gardens, their plays, their rice, their card games, their work parties, and worse - please, this was no picnic. Part of the authenticity of the book is that Clavell was there, and that gives it the vibrancy and power that make this Clavell's strongest book. Maybe not as grand as Shogun, or with as many characters and subplots as Whirlwind, but one you put down and really think.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The setting is a Japanese POW camp near Singapore in early 1945. After years of Japanese neglect, near starvation diets, tropical diseases, and increasing hopelessness of liberation, British, Australian, and American prisoners are dropping like flies. A young and idealistic British pilot, Peter Marlowe, forms an unlikely friendship with a clever, street-smart enlisted American, 'the King'. While all the prisoners are literally walking skeletons suffering from every disease the tropics have to offer, the King inexplicably manages to eat, live, and dress normally. The King's secret? Trading. However, in Changi trading is a zero-sum gain and absolutely forbidden. (In this strange world, the commanding British officers strictly enforce Japanese orders against their fellow inmates.) For one prisoner to eat, another will go hungry (ier). And the King is the master at not going hungry - looking out for No. 1. The king even outtrades his captors. Life is comparatively sweet for the King, albeit lonely. After all, the entire camp burns with covetous envy regarding the King. Nearly, everyone depends on the King, though, to make a life-saving trade - a watch for a bowl of rice, $20 for an orange, etc. The King decides to take the unaffected Marlowe under his wing as a sort of junior partner. Marlowe is decidedly fascinated by this dynamic man (without a conscience?). And the King, in turn, remains mystified by Marlowe's idealism and self-sacrifice. The King lets Marlowe in on his adventures and his secrets, something the whole camp would like to know, too. The ever imaginative King comes up with a brilliant scheme to both make money AND get revenge on his camp enemies. And this perverted world comes to a surrealistic end with the closing of the Pacific War. Though some survive Changi, the experience will haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives. The question is who will survive. This is an outstanding book, which I read in the space of two days, barely able to put the book down. Clavell's book - based on his actual imprisonment in Changi - describes the truly surrealistic world of an actual Japanese POW camp and the men within it. However, it is strictly a fictional account - only 2% of the prisoners held in Changi died according to the Australian War Memorial's Creation of Changi Prison Museum article by Kevin Blackburn.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first Clavell book I have ever read but I'm now sure that it won't be the last! I was so intrigued by the storyline itself. Not only that, but also the way the diverse cultures, which I am not fond of, were brought to life. It is so hard to write a story like that without giving a whole lot of background. He does an excellent job of presenting all the background you need to know as the story goes along without breaking the flow!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The 1st Book I have read by James Clavell. This is one of the Best Books I have ever read. To me...It's not so much about the war, but about Human Survival and Character....A true Eye Opener. ~ I really enjoyed this Book and put it on my Top 10 List.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked this book so much I couln't put it down. Unlike in a lot of books, I actually found myself wanting the characters to survive e.g: as far as I'm concerned, Phillip Carey (Of Human Bondage) can just die.
soylentgreen23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm going to persist with the Asian Saga, even though I'm not really a big fan of Clavell's writing anymore. I thought 'Shogun' was great, but 'Taipan' and 'Gaijin' were too much work. Fortunately, as a piece of writing, 'King Rat' is much better - and it should be too, as it is practically autobiographical.That said, it is hard to communicate the horrors of the prison of war camp, and I don't think that this comes nearly as close as others that I've read.
Arbitrex on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Clavell's best novel IMHO (warning: it reads much differently from his others, this is no Shogun or Taipan). The POW story alone is gripping, but there's a central question that resonates - what parts of your soul would you give up to survive? It makes for a rather satisfying and haunting ending with the follow up question: what kind of man would those choices make out of you, when you become free?
Pondlife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting and engrossing novel. I found this difficult to put down, and ended up reading it in two days.This is based on the author's experiences in a Japanese POW camp, which adds to the realism. But it's a novel, not an autobiography, and it should be read with that in mind. I've seen a few reviews which mark it down for factual inaccuracy, but I think that's missing the point.Maybe not quite as good as Shogun, but that's mainly because Shogun is so good that it's hard to live up to.
jimmaclachlan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Clavell was a prisoner of war of the Japanese during WWII & this book is about living in such a camp. It's an incredibly good, yet horrible story. It's not really like 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch' except that it does give a pretty granular look at just how far from the human norm people can adapt. I can't say much else without a spoiler, so I'll just say that it won't ever be your favorite book to read over & over, but it's a 'must read once'.
drewfull on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My favorite Clavell novel. He writes about the Japanese POW camp with the familiarity of a man once imprisioned in such a camp. His characters battle with their own morality is the driving force behind a surface story which on its own is captivating.
Katie_H on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the first volume in Clavell's "Asian Saga" and was written about the Japanese prison camp of Changi located in Singapore, where the author himself was held as a POW during the late stages of World War II. "The King" is a successful wheeling and dealing American. Using capitalistic initiative, he concocts many money-making schemes, the most shocking of which, involves breeding rats to sell as "rabbit" meat. He generates feelings of hatred or envy in others, but everyone wants to be close to him in order to experience the material rewards that he provides. He befriends an honorable British officer, Peter Marlowe, who acts as his interpreter and learns that many ethical dilemmas may be relative. One of the most fascinating aspects occurs after the end of the war, when many of the POWs are fearful to return to normal life. There are moments of excitement and drama, but mostly it is a testament to the strength and adaptability of the human spirit. The story will be most interesting to those who enjoy military, historical, and cultural topics.
caobhin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
got the book from Bob several months back - engrossing read, especially towards the end when you want to know what happens to the poor guys. clear opinions from the author on capitalism, religion, and the role of the US in WWII and it's cultural differences with it's allies
DRFP on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Perhaps it was this book's brevity, compared to the "epic" nature of Clavell's other novels, that left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.This is definitely a good book but Clavell, and an interesting look at life inside a Japanese POW camp, but the book didn't have the lasting impact I expected it to.
uryjm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A belter of a novel, wrung from the author's own experience of life in a Japanese POW camp. The book is concerned with how men interact with one another in such a pressure cooker, and how moralism and character wilt in extremis. The book pulls few punches, and there is very little redemption in the end for any of the characters, and a lot of venom about the unfairness of war (captured in the small vignettes of life at home for the loved ones left behind). This is a classic piece of high tension writing, the pace never flags and the impact is considerable. How did men come through the experience? By being men, with all their faults, strengths and frailty, and they did prevail despite it all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the first James Clavell book I read, and I enjoyed it very much. I found myself instantly immersed in a setting and a way of life that I could not have imagined before reading King Rat...extremely observant and informative writer regarding social structure, personalities and history.
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