There is something so comforting about picking up a Nevil Shute book. Not a cosy-tea-by-the-fire sort of comfort but a reassuring sort of comfort nonetheless. You know you are in the hands of a consummate storyteller who will keep you enthralled from the first page to the last and that the book will be finished all too quickly. That is exactly what happened to me this week when I read Ruined City (also published as Kindling).
The story opens in London in 1934. The Depression is raging and people are out of work all over the country but life for banker Henry Warren is going well. Sort of. Warren is spending more time on airplanes flying to business meeting than he is at home; he and his wife are divorcing; and, though only in his early forties, his health is beginning to fail. His business – a family one – is doing well but that’s about the only thing poor Warren has going right for him.
Warren’s busy life comes to an abrupt standstill when, while in the north of England, he becomes ill. Forced to remain in hospital for some weeks after an operation, he witnesses firsthand the impact of the Depression on the residents of Staples, a former shipbuilding town. With the shipyard now closed and no other industry to support it, the town is a bleak and hopeless place. As Warren watches one after another of his fellow hospital patients die needlessly, too malnourished and weak to stand the shock of the surgery or attempt a recovery, an idea begins to form in his mind. And so, once recovered and on his feet, he vows to do something to help the town that had helped him.
Shute had fun with the business details here. Not as much fun as he has with engineering details in his other books (once an engineer, always an engineer) but fun nonetheless. Warren is determined to help the people of Staples but to get a shipyard back on its feet you must first find someone who needs ships. Warren’s ethically dubious dealings with a fictitious Balkan country were the highlight of the book for me. Yes, the rebirth of Staples was all very cheering but give me greedy bureaucrats and crafty middlemen any day. Warren is an idealistic but he is no prim Dudley Do-Right; his heart is in the right place but he is experienced in the ways of the world – perhaps too experienced. He wants Staples to be successful and knows that to do everything completely above board right from the start would lead nowhere. No, to succeed wheels must be greased, pockets must be lined, and, crucially, a few lies must be told. It is all for the greater good but it is also not strictly legal.
I wish I belonged to a mostly male book club so we could read Nevil Shute novels all the time and talk about what excellent manly virtues his heroes exhibit. We could sip our whiskey/port/other suitably manly beverage and toss off comments like “but Warren never lost his dignity” and “he sacrificed himself to save an entire town” and then get slightly teary and sentimental and it would all be wonderful. Since I don’t, let us pause for a moment to imagine how pleasant that would be.
Eventually, all ends well (not always a given with Shute – see On the Beach). Warren bears his trials like a man (my imaginary book club applauds him for this, naturally) and ends up not only with the thanks of a grateful town but also a very steady, loyal fiancée. It is excessively tidy and, if lacking the slightly giddy energy with which Warren’s financial weavings were recorded, no worse off for all that. A fine sort of book. Now pass the port.