There are certain books your dad had on his dad shelf, and if he was anything like my father, he’ll have had a few dogeared Nevil Shutes and Eric Amblers.
I was going to feature these two authors in my forthcoming book ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ from Quercus, but the editors feel that Shute and Ambler are too well-known. I’m not sure I agree with them, though, as few readers I’ve spoken to can recall ever reading them.
After a wartime spent in departments like weapons development, Nevil Shute revelled in the delight of aeronautics, and wrote uncomplicated thrillers starring adventurous gung-ho pilots who used lots of flying jargon. Eric Ambler was a similar author, and produced sophisticated Europe-set 1930s thrillers, but what links them is their ability to tell 20th century stories filled with enthralling action sequences and characters you care about, linking events into larger political settings.
This basic storytelling skill lately seems to have become buried within lengthier, more self-important volumes lately, so it’s a shock to note the brevity of most Shute and Ambler novels. Like their heroes and heroines, the authors get in, do the job well and get out.
Nevil Shute’s actual surname was Norway. Like many writers in the twenties and thirties, he was fascinated by flying, so his heroes are often independent pilots. In the fifties, he switched his locations to Australia and wrote his two most famous books, the post-apocalyptic ‘On The Beach’ and ‘A Town Like Alice’, in which a young Englishwoman and an Australian cattleman survive starvation and torture during the war in Malaya, and later found a new outback town (memorably mentioned by Pete and Dud).
Sadly, uncomplicated novels about fundamentally good people are unfashionable now, and Shute and Ambler have become a minority taste.