Back to the Classics Challenge 2021: Classic by a Favorite Author

I discovered Nevil Shute’s books by accident a couple of years ago. I just randomly picked up his book A Town Like Alice in a bookstore for a light summer read. Little did I know that I’ve unearthed a master storyteller that will instantly become one of my favorite classic authors. Since then, I keep one or two of Shute’s books on my shopping wish list; therefore, it was an easy choice for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. After some deliberation, I picked out Shute’s novel No Highway. As always, I didn’t really know what type of story I will get because Shute can pretty much write anything.

Synopsis from Goodreads

Theodore Honey is a shy, inconspicuous aircraft engineer whose eccentric interests in quantum mechanics and spiritualism are frowned upon in aviation circles. But when a passenger plane crashes in unexplained circumstances, Honey must convince his superiors that his unorthodox theories are correct before more lives are lost.

My thoughts

This time Nevil Shute lands us in Farnborough, at the Structural Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment. It’s a facility that’s responsible for testing the safety of the latest British aircraft. Needless to say, it’s also a place that houses some brilliant and equally weird scientists. Our main narrator is Dr. Scott, who has just been assigned as the Head of the Department. His primary responsibility is to manage these weird scientists and preferably steer them in the direction of new scientific discoveries. One of his staff members is Mr. Honey, a widower raising his 12-year old daughter alone and barely managing at that. After his wife’s death, Mr. Honey has acquired a portfolio of unusual interests, including spiritualism and some unorthodox new theory about Jesus Christ. It has put his reputation as a credible scientist at risk, which becomes really unhelpful when his latest scientific hypothesis might turn out to be true before there’s actually scientific proof. Mr. Honey has estimated that the newest British transatlantic airplane model Reindeer might have a significant fault – its tail is likely to fail at about 1440 hours due to fatigue. He is running a test to prove the hypothesis. Still, it takes a lot of time while these airplanes are up and running and potentially exceeding the hypothesized time for failure. In fact, one aircraft has suffered a crash with all passengers and crew dead. The expertise deemed it a human error but was it?

I have to say that there is a particular skill to building tension and suspense in a story that mostly moves forward with the help of office or conference meetings and telephone calls. Shute has taken a stereotype of a scientist and overexaggerated it to the extremes leaving the reader and everyone else guessing till the very end whether he’s mad or genius. Mr. Honey manages to convince some of the people that he is right (among them two beautiful women), but his actions bring in quite a few powerful enemies. Not to mention that the reputation of the British aviation is also at stake. So, while Mr. Honey is doing his thing, Dr. Scott is fighting the real bureaucratic battle. If I didn’t know the ins and outs of the academic world so well, I might have found it all a bit boring. But I do, and I think it was a quite remarkable and accurate portrayal of the real thing (at least, some 70 years ago).

As much as I enjoyed the suspense and all the twists and turns of the story, I didn’t quite buy into some of the author’s choices towards the end. I guess I’m too much of a scientist to allow myself to believe in things I cannot fully explain. I know it’s fiction, but it kind of took away some credibility. At the same time, I kept on thinking about my colleagues at the university who work on similar topics as Mr. Honey but for space technologies. One could almost believe that their work today might be based on Mr. Honey’s initial discoveries back in the day.

To sum up, it was an entertaining and engaging read that I’ve grown to know and expect from Nevil Shute. I might have enjoyed it a tiny bit less than some of his other novels I’ve read, but it was still a great book!

Rating: 4/5 stars

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