Sunday, March 16, 2014

A troubling story of war

Most Secret, Nevil Shute

Reading Alex's lovely review of A Town Like Alice made me want to take it straight off the shelf again, though I can almost recite parts of it from memory.  But sticking to the Triple Dog Dare, instead I chose one of the three Nevil Shute novels that I've had unread for far too long.  It is the proverbial icing on the cake that all three also qualify for the Mid-Century of Books challenge.

I chose Most Secret because like Mariana, the Monica Dickens novel I had just finished, it is set in the Second World War.  The two stories could not be more different, however.  In Dickens' novel, the war is really just a framing device for the story that she want to tell.  Shute's, on the other hand, is an account of espionage and sabotage carried out against the Nazi forces in occupied France, centered in Brittany.

Nevil Shute's stories often begin with someone explaining how he became involved in the events he is about to recount.  Here, it is Commander Martin of the Navy, who works under the Vice-Admiral for Channel Operations:
So much happened in the two years that I spent in the Admiralty, I had a finger in so many pies, that I have found it difficult to say exactly when it was that this thing began. From my engagement diary it seems to have been about the middle of July in 1941, and I should say it began with a telephone call from McNeil.
I find these narrators, like Anthony Trollope's, immediately engaging, drawing me into the story from the first page.  Like Trollope, I think Shute has a distinctive narrative voice, instantly recognizable.  Sometimes the narrators speaking are just themselves framing devices, recounting a story that they have heard.  In other books, like this one and A Town Like Alice, they play important parts in the events, though the narration may shift away from them to follow other people.  Shute is very good at weaving together the first person accounts with those the narrators hear later, or piece together from other sources.

This story begins with Brigadier McNeil bringing a proposal from the Army to the Navy: a joint operation to use a Breton fishing vessel, brought over by refugees, for reconnaissance and covert action.  The proposal comes originally from three officers, led by Charles Simon, himself recently escaped from France.  The son of an English father and a French mother, he was educated in England but lived most of his life in France, which makes him an ideal agent.  With his admiral's agreement, Martin begins working with McNeil and Simon on their plans of attack.

This is a great action story, with daring raids and breathless escapes.  There is quite a bit of technical detail, a Shute hallmark, here about boats and weapons, which I tend to skate over.  Yet this is also a very bleak book.  According to the website for the Nevil Shute Foundation, it was written in 1942, shortly after the events it recounts, but it was published only in 1945.  I wonder, did it come too close to actual events to be published earlier?  After all, Nevil Shute spent the war years working on secret weapons for the British war effort.  Here, his story deals with the miseries and cruelties of the Nazis in occupied France, and the sometimes violent reactions of the population, particularly in Brittany.  At the same time, the weapons that Charles Simon and his company are preparing against the Nazis are equally violent, even cruel.  The question arises more than once: Do the ends justify the means?  For some, the answer is a given, an obvious yes when faced with the evils of the Nazi regime.  Others, like Martin, struggle more with the question, but in the end, despite some misgivings, they come to the same conclusion.

This is also a story of courage, of the heroism that people can rise to in the worst of circumstances.  It is there in Simon and his crew, and in the Bretons who help them whenever they can.  That seems to be a theme that runs through Nevil Shute's books.  He writes of ordinary people, with human flaws and weaknesses, caught up in extraordinary events.  They respond in heroic ways but see themselves as only doing their job, doing what they must, stepping up because someone has to.  They don't see themselves as heroes, or even anything special, but we do.  With this story, though, I found myself uncomfortable with the means, and the motives, for some of the action, which made characters more ambiguous, less easily defined.

The author's note mentions Shute's war-time work, and that reminded me that I've been meaning to read his autobiography, Slide Rule.  I've added it to my reading list, along with a re-read of A Town Like Alice and maybe some other old favorites, like Trustee from the Toolroom and The Far Country.  I also have a couple of his books, Beyond the Black Stump and The Rainbow and the Rose, which I read many years ago but now have no memory of, so I look forward to rediscovering those as well.


  1. Isn't A Town Like Alice a magnificent novel? I haven't read enough Shute at all and have some on my TBR somewhere. I'm glad someone else skims technical bits: I feel like I should be taking them in with the same concentration I give to the rest of the prose, but I generally don't.

  2. After our discussion on 'A Town Like Alice' last week I came away wanting to read as many more as I could. It's interesting what you say about the details of the war because one of the things we noted was how good he was at creating an atmosphere of war without feeling the need to linger over gory details. Perhaps he got better at knowing how much to include.
    I hadn't realised that there was an autobiography. I shall certainly have to look out for a copy of that.

  3. vicki, I've lost count of how many times I've read Alice. Did you ever see the TV version? They added all kinds of unnecessary stuff - but it was my introduction to Nevil Shute.

    Alex, I wonder if this book reflects more the time it was written - in the midst of the war - with stronger emotions than the books written later, looking back on the war. But even here he doesn't linger on the details. Some of them he leaves you to work out for yourself, and that's almost more disturbing. Let me know if you'd like additional recommendations :)

  4. I've never read anything by Neville Shute, though I remember A Town Like Alice being on our bookshelves when I was a child. I must remedy that soon.

  5. Joanne, Shute tells such great stories, with characters that feel like real people you might have met. A Town Like Alice would be a great place to start!

  6. I read 'A Town Called Alice' from my parents shelves years ago, and it didn't leave a big impression, but I do remember liking it. Adding your recommendation to one from Darlene (Cosy Boos) makes me think I should at least check the library catalogue.

  7. Jane, I hope that your library still has his books. I think a lot of them have gone out of print now unfortunately, but I still see used copies of the most popular, like Alice.

  8. I've listened to A Town Like Alice twice, and loved it both times. I really liked Shute's writing and tone and the characters were so vivid and realistic to me.

    I've been meaning to read more of his work--thanks for the reminder and good suggestions. I am trying to learn more about WWII anyway, so Most Secret sounds so interesting. I do like the technical details.

  9. Jane, he wrote quite a few books set during the war - or like Alice, looking back at events during the war. The only one of his I really don't like is Requiem for a Wren - but that's just me.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!