The techie novels of Nevil Shute

Last month I had a conversation with Dale Grover (co-founder of Maker Works in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- read his profile at Make) about the late author Nevil Shute. Shute is best known for the novel On the Beach (about a dying Earth after a global nuclear war) but we discussed a lesser-known novel of Shute's called Trustee from the Toolroom, which I read five or six years ago and absolutely loved.

Trustee from the Toolroom is a tremendously compelling and well-plotted adventure story from 1960 about a mild-mannered English columnist for a hobbyist magazine called Miniature Mechanic who is duty bound to recover a container of valuable jewels from his dead brother's wrecked yacht in the South Pacific. (Fun fact from Wikipedia: "Trustee from the Toolroom was voted #27 on the Modern Library Readers' list of the top 100 novels. The top ten in that poll, though, included four works by Ayn Rand and three by L. Ron Hubbard -- according to David Ebershoff, Modern Library's publishing director, 'the voting population [was] skewed.'")

During our chat, Dale told me he's read a bunch of Shute's other books, and he was kind enough to email me the next day with mini-reviews of them. I asked Dale if I could run his email on Boing Boing and he said OK. Here's what he wrote:

You have started with what I think is Nevil Shute's best book, but there are some really, really good ones:

A Town Like Alice No engineering, but a wonderful story about an English woman caught up in the Japanese invasion in Malaysia, then her transformation of a village and town later. It was made into a really well done mini series. (And a so-so version later on. Go for the long one, 6 hours but worth it.)

Slide Rule Shute's autobiography. You knew he started out in aviation engineering? One of his first jobs was helping to design one of a pair of airships for the British government. (He went on to found an aviation company, and later in life he had a home machine shop and made model engines.)

No Highway Another engineering one. A "boffin" (nerd) in aviation R&D has to act in the real world on his scientific beliefs. Was made into a great movie (was available on YouTube in its entirety at one point, but I don't see it now), and soon after a great radio drama (should be available online), both starring Marlene Dietrich and Jimmie Stewart. All are highly recommended!

The Far Country A sweet story (Shute had a romantic side), plus Shute was not happy about what was happening politically in England, and saw Australia (where he eventually moved) as offering the opportunities no longer possible in England.

Round the Bend Aviation mechanic starts a religion -- Engine maintenance as soulcraft. Set in the mideast post WWII.

The Chequerboard, Pastoral, Landfall, In the Wet -- all worth reading. And On the Beach is possibly his most well-known book for the powerful image of the results of a world-wide nuclear war. (It was made into a major movie, but I have not seen it.) It is not an upbeat story, though. Movie has some differences from the book that Shute did not like.

Shute's well-known trip to Australia by small plane is captured in Flight of Fancy by James Riddell. Bali is where Riddell lost his heart. There's some advantage in reading it after reading some of the books that came out of this flight -- A Town Like Alice, Round the Bend, The Chequerboard, In the Wet. (Aha -- that's where that scene came from.) It's on the outside looking in on Shute. Widely available used for about $15.

Be sure to poke around on the website for the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation. They do loan out books and movies (I donated my copy of the mini-series of A Town Like Alice). And every few years they have an international gathering. Next one is in NZ, I think.


  1. Maker-Works Ann Arbor is a great community workshop. If you are anywhere around there and can possibly spare the time, it is very worth it to take a tour, if for no other reason than to see the resources available to you.

    The place is super friendly and I have found everyone I spoke to there very helpful and encouraging.

    I am borderline agoraphobic so it took a fair amount of effort for me to visit, but literally, from the moment I walked in the people there made me feel comfortable and welcome.

    I almost cried the first time I went to the “Go-Tech” monthly meeting of makers/nerds/geeks/etc that meets there once a month. For the first time in my life I felt like I was surrounded by 30 or 40 people very much like myself. I have never had that experience before and it was amazing.

    1. He is very much one of those writers where you have to say “He was of his time…”

  2. His wartime books are interesting. He was working on ideas for commando operations and weird tech, and put several rejected ideas into ‘Most Secret’. I’m not sure if he was ever working with Ian Flemming, but they were coming up with similar ideas.

    ‘Pastoral’ is one of my favourites, in which be pretty much invents the Bomber story as shown in Memphis Belle or Catch-22. You know the sort: If we fly 25 missions we get to go home/transfer to a safe command/live out the war. Only this last one though. It might be a nice easy mission. Really, it might be. 

    ‘What happened to the Corbetts’ is pre war but manages a fine set of predictions about how England would react to the Blitz. A few things didn’t quite work out – the UK gets hammered and the Royal Navy winds up in France preparing for a counter invasion at the end, but it gets a lot right.

    One of my favourites is the entirely non techie ‘Ruined City’, written in the 1930s with the Great Depression still crippling the Tyneside shipbuilding industry. A banker suffering a mid life crisis has his life saved by a charity (pre-NHS) hospital in a city destroyed by the closure of their shipyard and tries to bring it back to life. Both a hymn in praise of capitalism and, because of the rules that need to be bent, a demonstration of why strict adheranceto the rules of the Market will never achieve anything.

    1. my roomate’s sister makes $60 every hour on the laptop. She has been out of work for 5 months but last month her income was $21894 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on  Zap22.c­om

  3. “Round the Bend” is fascinating. Somewhat British-Empire condescending in part, but has a real _Stranger in a Strange Land_ proto-religious theme.

  4. I’ve read all his book-length work. Shute was a great story teller.  The political sentiments in many of his novels (and his autobiography) would be considered pretty conservative today, but there are protagonists of real integrity and complexity, and an evocation of “brotherhood” especially in Alice, Chequer Board and Trustee that have attracted me to his novels over the past 40 years.  

  5. I read my high school library’s copy of No Highway during my adolescence. At least in part, I credit it with my present-day fascination with air-crash investigation. 

  6. I have fond memories of listening to audio versions of his books on family car trips. Shute designed dirigibles, and it is cool the way technical knowledge leaks into his texts. Thanks for bringing him back to my attention!

  7. Neville Shute worked at RAE Farnbrough, and worked on the DeHavilland Comet. My parents also worked on the same project, and in fact had a model of the aircraft on their wedding cake. They were mathematicians, and Shute was in structures, so they did not work together, but my parents knew there was someone who wrote books in his spare time.

    The ‘Reindeer’ aircraft is an oblique reference to the Comet – ‘Comet was one of Santa’s reindeer. There was a feeling amongst some that this aircraft was trying to go too far, too fast, and some piece of hitherto unknown physics was going to bite them. Have a look at the thing…

    ..and remember it was flying in 1949.

    Shute’s ‘Reindeer’ suffered from a temperature-dependent high-frequency fatigue failure. That is a bit unlikely, but a perfectly respectable guess for his day. The Comet suffered form a low-frequency fatigue failure of the fuselage, aggravated by the squarish shapes of the windows.

    There are some Shute books here I have never heard of. I must go and root them out. Thanks! 

    1. I’m not sure you can really call his views “anti-left” — “On the Beach” was probably the most influential anti nuclear war book ever, written at a time when criticizing the arms race was was a radical left position. Yes, he did have a thing against bureaucracy, which made him an enemy of Britain’s fledgling national health system,  and yes, he over-romanticized Australia’s frontier spirit, but these weren’t part of a consistently right-wing view.

  8. What I like about Shute’s books is the recurring theme that ordinary people, placed in extraordinary circumstances, can become extraordinary people.

    No one’s mentioned Pied Piper?

    And I have a soft spot for Most Secret, not only because it’s a barnburner (*Heh* I see what I did there) of a story, but because it has a decidedly odd narrative structure that nonetheless works well.

      1. The Mysterious Aviator (U.S. title)  and So Disdained (U.K. title) are the same book. Most Secret was published under the same title in both countries.

      2. There are dumb Americans and smart ones. Dumb Brits and smart brits. No need to stereotype.

  9. Round the Bend is my religion, Trustee is amazing and In the Wet is a great SF story. Shute was a maker’s maker (read “The Secret War” by Gerald Pawle for a lot of fun details, it has a forward by Shute). Please read every one of his books, you will be richer for it. Vineland the Good is a great play.

  10. The Nevil Shute Norway Foundation website is

    Among numerous other things you can do on the site are: subscribe to the monthly email newsletter, look for Shute enthusiasts in your locality and find out if there is a reading group near you.  There’s also a Google discussion group although it’s not always all that active.

    The next Shute conference will be mid-October of this year in Hobart, Tasmania (NZ was a relatively close miss.)

    Round the Bend comes pretty close to being my religion, too.

    Most of Shute’s books are now available as e-books. 

  11. I saw A Town Like Alice years ago on Masterpiece Theater (when Alastair Cooke was still kicking it). It was pretty awesome. But there’s an even earlier, and equally awesome, black and white movie version from the 50’s starring Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna.

  12. I highly recommend Slide Rule. On the maiden voyage of the airship from England to Canada there were workmen who went out on the skin to repair tears. There was a way to get to the top of the ship’s body and a sort of lounge to take it all in albeit from a perilous post.
    The title says it all. We were well into the 1980s before structural designs could be done by computer. Prior to that it took tedious manual computations plus checking and checking again. 

  13. Great post. I recently read Shute’s “Requiem for a Wren” and blogged a few thoughts on it:

  14. I too read “A Town Like Alice” after enjoying watching it on PBS.  I liked it (except for the racist bits), but on my second re-reading, I was struck by the thought that the Jean Paget and her trustee have worked so hard to achieve… Gopher Prairie! I also  wondered whether another novel, written by Jean’s child would discuss stultifying small town life ;)

  15. “Round the Bend” is one of my top-five, all-time favorite books. The one sentence review doesn’t do justice to its themes of loyalty, honor, enlightenment, and betrayal. Sometimes hard to find, but well worth the effort.

  16. Missed “An old captivity”, one of the best Shutes. Lots of aviation and quite moving to boot, like most Shutes. What a master story-teller.

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