RogerBW's Blog

Ruined City, Nevil Shute 14 August 2016

1938 fiction. Henry Warren, a successful banker, works all his waking hours, travelling across Europe to sort out financial deals, particularly share issues. His digestion is bad, and his wife's having an affair with a foreigner. When all the stress catches up with him, he winds up in the hospital of a northern town, one that's been without significant employment since the shipyard closed, and decides to do something about it. (US vt Kindling.)

But, as he says, there's no way it can be done honestly. So Warren, until now a model of probity, goes after a thoroughly dodgy contract with an unstable Balkan nation, since they're the only people desperate enough for foreign finance that they can be persuaded to order ships from a yard that's been shut down and needs to be restarted. Once that initial order's gone through, and people are back at work, the yard should be able to stand on its own feet; but it has to be got going.

Shute had experience of corporate finance, having worked as Calculator on the R100 project, and more significantly having been a director of Airspeed Ltd from its founding in 1931 (and having engaged in a bit of very carefully-shaded prospectus-writing himself); one suspects that he was writing from the life, or at least from the life he'd have liked to arrange.

The utter corruption of the Balkan nation is perhaps heavy-handed, and the description of Warren's wife's lover would be thoroughly offensive if written today. And there's rather too much coincidence (a disgruntled secretary just happens to find an incriminating letter, and to meet someone to whom she can give it to do damage). But this is a fairy story at heart, about the knight in well-tailored armour who rides in and saves the town, and coincidences are the sort of thing that happens in fairy stories.

There's a romance, but as often in Shute it's low-key: it's principally a very deep friendship growing between two compatible people, with marriage as a way in which they can eventually express it.

As a final note of irony, this book was published shortly before British shipbuilding entered terminal decline as welding took over from riveting.

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