November 17, 2004

Lonely Road, by Nevil Shute

Ian Hamet introduced me to Nevil Shute by encouraging me to read A Town Like Alice. I read it and loved it, and looked for more, and discovered that Shute is mostly out of print. So while I was scouting about the many used bookstores in New Orleans' French Quarter some while back, it occurred to me to look for some Shute, and this is what I found. It's an early novel, and it shows, a little; it's clearly intended to be something of a spy novel, and yet more than anything else it turns out to be a romance.

The book is set in England in the late 1920's, and (having been published in 1932) belongs to that small set of books that can look back to the Great War without any conscious overtones of the greater war to come. We think of them as the years between the Wars, but Shute and his characters do not.

Malcolm Stevenson is a war hero, having served in the Royal Navy, and consequently is now given the courtesy title of Commander. He owns a shipyard and a small fleet of merchant ships, and he spends most of his time designing ships and boats. He's unmarried, and not by choice; he has asked many women to marry him, and all have turned him down. It's not clear why, mind you; he's wealthy, good-looking, well-mannered, and friendly. In any event, he remains an essentially lonely man, buryied in his work.

Early in the book Stevenson is asked to help with a police investigation-- some group, probably Communist, is running guns into England in order to foment an uprising. During the course of things, Stevenson becomes acquainted with a hired dancer at a Palais de Danse in Leeds. Her name is Mollie, and she turns out to be the key to the investigation; her brother has been driving a lorry for the gun-runners. But as he comes to know her, things change between them.

And as I say, the romance between Stevenson and Mollie becomes the centerpiece of the book. She's a smart, capable girl from a lower class family, doing the best she can; he's a smart capable older man of means. Each of them have expectations about the other that turn out to be wrong; and amazingly, these differences are allowed to unfold naturally rather than being turned into dramatic plot contrivances. It's touching, and ultimately heartbreaking, and well worth the trip.

Oh, and they find the gun-runners too.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 17, 2004 08:27 PM