The time is 1934 and England is in the grip of the Great Depression. On a walking tour in the north, Henry Warren of Warren Sons & Mortimer, merchant bankers, is stricken with appendicitis and taken to hospital in the city of Sharples. During his convalescence, he watches as patients in the adjacent beds, patients with only minor ailments, die for no good reason. He learns that Sharples was a ship-building town. Now it too, is dying, its shipyard, mine and rolling mills closed, its people half-starved and apathetic.
Banking is Warren's life. He has no children and is in the midst of divorcing his wife. As head of "one of the soundest little houses in the City," he has turned down proposal after proposal from cities determined to encourage job-creating enterprises that will keep people working. Now he sees the consequences when all hope has fled: a city of impoverished sterility, clean-picked and silent. He knows nothing can be done for Sharples - not by legitimate means, at any rate.
Warren returns to London, and step by tortuous step, pieces together a plan to revive the shipyard. His name and reputation carry the plan so far and then no farther. Determined to see it through, he takes a drastic next step alone. It works: the yard is re-opened, and Sharples is pulled back from the brink. First ten men are taken on, then 200, eventually 2,000, and gradually the city returns to noisy, polluted life.
Ruined City is undoubtedly one of the best of all Nevil Shute's works, an example of individual "can do" on a grand scale. It is a story of high (and low) finance, of venal Balkan politicians and greedy English vicars, of the salvation of a city on the brink of extinction. The scenes of Balkan nightlife are immensely entertaining, the British diplomatic reactions predictably and deliciously stodgy.
Underlying all is the devastation of unemployment. Warren's heroics come at a steep price, but he gains a rich reward at the end, in a scene where four small words carry a powerful emotional impact. So good is Ruined City, in fact, that upon reaching the last page the reader may experience a strong urge to go back to the beginning and start again.