Invisible Ink 3: Eric Ambler & Neville Shute

Reading & Writing


While neither of these classic authors is truly forgotten – in the UK at least – their words have faded to a faintness only discerned by loyal fans, and most modern readers would be hard-pressed to recall them. Reprints are available and second-hand copies lie in Oxfam shops, but both have been caught out by the passage of time.

Neville Shute (below) wrote wartime aircraft adventures and Eric Ambler (above) produced sophisticated Europe-set 1930s thrillers, but what links them (apart from the fact that their paperbacks tended to sit side by side on second-hand bookshelves) 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 vast self-important volumes, 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. Uncomplicated novels about fundamentally good people are unfashionable now, and Shute has become a minority taste.


Ambler came from a London music hall family and toured as a comic, but became more politically aware than the Oxford-educated Shute. A committed anti-Fascist, his novels reflected the growing ideological complexity of his time, and his taut thrillers, like ‘The Mask Of Demetrius’ and ‘Journey Into Fear’ came early in his career. His heroes often get out of their depth in the cynical, murky world of European espionage. ‘What else could you expect from a balance of power,’ asks one of his characters, ‘adjusted in terms of land, of arms, of man-power and of materials: in terms, in other words, of money?’

A later novel, ‘The Light Of Day’, adopted a lighter tone and concerned jewel thieves trying to rob the Istanbul museum. It was filmed as ‘Topkapi’ and subsequently parodied in ‘The Pink Panther’. Ambler moved to Hollywood and scripted ‘The Cruel Sea’ which secured an Oscar nomination, and ‘A Night To Remember’, about the sinking of the Titanic. The Shute and Ambler paperbacks have evocative covers and have become collectable of late.

10 comments on “Invisible Ink 3: Eric Ambler & Neville Shute”

  1. davem says:

    Years since I have read ‘A Town Like Alice ‘ … might have to re-visit it soon.

  2. DC says:

    I have picked up a couple of Ambler books to join my reading queue. Thanks for the links to “The Light of Day” which may be a good introduction to his work. I have liked Nevil Shute novels, since I was a teenager and No Highway a favourite. He also has quite a high book-to-film strike rate.

    Shute not only wrote about aircraft, he worked on their designs as well and was an employee of Barnes-Wallis. Later he went onto work in the MODs department of weird wartime weapons and designed a beach clearing device later parodied by Dad’s Army (the radio controlled wheel bomb that chases Pike).

    I have a feeling he also got involved in the D-Day landings. He did a bit of motor racing in later life. Obviously not a chap who enjoyed “downtime”.

  3. Chris Hughes says:

    Very pleased to see several Neville Shute books – new reprints – on the classics shelf in Herne Bay library.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    The tv version was called A Town Like Alice but the book was The Legacy. His autobiography was called Slide Rule and he was involved in the airship project which had the R101 and the R100. How many people even know what a slide rule is or what it was used for? There was a crash which ended the project. His writing about it is very interesting. The S shelf (behind me) is blocked by a pile of other books so I can’t see the titles but his books have a mystic tone which puts some people off, I think. Jungles and tropical climates feature largely along with the flying theme.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Getting a bit of Invisible Ink telepathy, I fear. After Allingham, went in to read Ambler’s The Care of Time – his last. Not the best by a long way, but one has to admire the meticulous plotting.

  6. Rho says:

    I read On The Beach one night when I was about 13 years old. Woke up my sister with my crying. I’m 67 so the idea of nuclear war was strong at that time.

  7. mel says:

    We read On the Beach for English class in the 80s. It’s probably time for another look.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    On the Beach was certainly his most important piece of writing.

  9. Julian Smith says:

    Very interested in why some writers are written about more than read. Neville Shute is a good example!

  10. Sally Erickson says:

    My father loved Neville Shute. Most of Shute’s books weren’t available in the U.S. so I bought a bunch of them at Foyle’s the first time I went to London.

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