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 $(removed)

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.