Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute, 1960

I didn’t realize this was Shute’s last book; it’s one of the best, with a decent plot and wonderful descriptions of machining. Epigraph: “An engineer is a man who can do for five bob what any bloody fool can do for a quid.” Keith Stewart, miniature machinist, goes on a quest to retrieve a legacy for his niece, and one of the main ways he wins people over is by showing them a tiny working four-cycle engine he’s designed and built. In my favorite scene he makes a set of metal eggs to comfort his grieving niece:

“We could do a silvery egg in steel, or a yellow egg if we heated a steel egg a bit, or a blue egg if we heated a steel egg quite a lot, or a grey egg if we case-hardened it. Or we could make a coppery-colored egg if we made it out of copper.”

Shute’s characters often sound incredibly stupid and dull when they talk—instead of using narrative license to improve dialogue, he makes it as bald and dopey as possible. Keith’s wife, Katie, although by her actions revealed as nurturing and sensible, comes across as intellectually limited. The novel is also marred by Shute’s unconscious racism and anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, he’s kind to his characters and his readers–somebody on the Nevil Shute site pointed out that in his later books there are no enemies, or even unhelpful people—all the conflict is situational. It’s a feel-good read with a very satisfactory ending.

Re-read — third or fourth, probably first read in the mid-80s to early 90s. I came to Shute not by way of On the Beach (his most famous book, not one of my favorites) or even A Town Like Alice (made into a popular TV miniseries, and is one of my favorites) but through my dad’s love for Round the Bend, which I first read as a teenager.

One thought on “Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute, 1960

  1. Thank you for your mention of Trustee from the Toolroom. I read it as a teen in the 60's and have had it in my heart since. For years I have been unable to remember the book's title or author, but I have related the plot and its significance to my life many times to many friends. I Googled "metal eggs" + "miniature machinist" and found your blog entry as the only hit. The Internet is amazing.

    Thank you again. Discovering your Blog review has brought me great pleasure.

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