The narrative records the adventures of Marlowe and the King in the camp and in the native village they manage to visit. There is a great deal of suspense involving a hidden radio and some humor involving the breeding of rats to be sold as food. What differentiates this novel from others of its type is the unforgettable depiction of the huge camp itself, devoid of sanitary provisions, and full of ragged, starving, diseased men.
The name Marlowe strongly suggests this novel's relationship to the works of Joseph Conrad, novels in which the main character, a well-born young Englishman, is tested in order to determine whether or not he is able to live up to his own ideals of honor. The main characters of Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), and The Secret Sharer (1910) face a moral problem similar to Marlowe's and indeed, each of these novels is narrated by a man named Marlowe, who represents Conrad, as Marlowe represents Clavell. Conrad's characters are tested either in the African jungle or in Asia, sites either geographically close to, or not unlike, Singapore. Like Clavell's Marlowe, Conrad's young men are tested under the most extreme conditions.
King Rat was made into a black and white film by Columbia Pictures in 1965. It was directed by Bryan Forbes and starred George Segal as King Rat. The depiction of the brutal life within the compound won critical and popular success for the film.