Forgotten authors No. 47: Nevil Shute & Eric Ambler

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The Independent Culture

I sometimes wonder if this column's title is entirely right; perhaps it should be called 'Invisible Ink' because, while neither Nevil Shute nor Eric Ambler is truly forgotten, their words have faded to a faintness only discerned by loyal fans. Reprints are available and second-hand copies lie in Oxfam shops, but both authors have been caught out by the passage of time.

Shute wrote wartime aircraft adventures and Ambler produced sophisticated Europe-set 1930s thrillers, but what links them (apart from their former paperback ubiquity) is their ability to tell 20th-century stories filled with enthralling action sequences and characters you care about. 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 and get out.

Nevil Shute (right) was an aviation engineer and – like many writers in the 1920s and 1930s – he was fascinated by flying, so his heroes are often independent pilots. In the 1950s, 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 reflect the growing ideological complexity of his time, and his tautest thrillers, such as The Mask of Dimitrios 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, about jewel thieves trying to rob the Istanbul museum, adopted a lighter tone. It was filmed as Topkapi and subsequently parodied in The Pink Panther. Ambler moved to Hollywood and scripted The Cruel Sea which secured him an Oscar nomination, and A Night to Remember, about the sinking of the Titanic.