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Most secret by Nevil Shute

Most secret (1945)

by Nevil Shute

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Six-word review: Authentic detail makes wartime drama vivid.

Extended review:

A born Englishman who has spent most of his life in France is able to pass for a citizen of both countries. In German-occupied France during World War II, this ability coupled with his industrial knowledge lights a fuse that has the potential to affect the outcome of the war.

Most Secret tells the story of a series of high-risk clandestine operations conceived and executed by people who don't look like heroes, seizing opportunities presented to them and doing their duty to the utmost. Shute's low-key, matter-of-fact style doesn't glorify the actors or dramatize heroics. Instead, it shows us people much like ourselves, doing what they do for reasons of their own, standing by their convictions and doing their part with no assurance that it will ever make a difference.

The plot involves a fishing boat named Geneviève that is commissioned into service in a secret operation to take out a German Räumboot in the harbor of a small French town. A man named Charles Simon, French by adoption but born and educated in England, is the key to this operation, aided by a crew of men with various strong motivations for taking part. One of them is a highly skilled industrial chemist who puts his specialized knowledge to use in arming a flame thrower.

Shute spends many pages giving us intimate backstories on the main characters, none of whom talks very much, if at all, to the others about what brought him to where he is and what he's doing. We see them work together, and we have the quiet private knowledge of each man's story--an approach that lends the tale distinction and poignancy.

Another reviewer has said that using a ranking naval officer as narrator keeps the main characters at arm's length. I disagree. I think it allows us to be told their personal histories from a practical yet sympathetic point of view without their disclosing them to one another. Shute uses a third-party device like this in a number of his novels, and I think it affords them both greater scope and a focused interpretation without resorting to a third-person omniscient point of view. It's part of what gives them their remarkable feel of authenticity.

The amount of technical detail exceeds what I've encountered in other Shute novels, and, perhaps for that reason, the level of human warmth does not seem as high; but there are still engaging characters whose courage we can admire without feeling that their feats are beyond the reach of ordinary people. I enjoyed the novel and found few faults to criticize, but it wasn't a moving tale to equal A Town Like Alice or On the Beach, just to name two.

I suppose this novel might have done quite a lot to inspire patriotism and devotion to duty among the English and perhaps even the French during wartime, and it certainly took a fierce stand with respect to the Germans; but (for reasons I don't know) it was censored and withheld from publication in 1942 and not released until 1945, according to a Wikipedia article.

From Wikipedia I also learned that Geneviève is the patron saint of Paris, a symbolic point that would not have been lost on his original target audience.

If Shute were alive today, there's one thing I'd like to tell him, having read several of his novels now, all or most of which include one or more American characters--namely, that Americans do not (and, I hope, never did) have a habit of prefacing their utterances with "Say." If he knew someone who spoke like that, I don't quite see why he felt compelled to inflict that grating habit on his readers. ( )
3 vote Meredy | Dec 1, 2015 |
An entertaining tale of a fictional exercise carried out during the second world war. A bit bloodthirsty, but a good read if you enjoy a ripping sea yarn. ( )
  cazfrancis | Jan 13, 2015 |

This is one of Shute’s boat novels (he really, really likes boats and airplanes, especially airplanes) set in WW2 with a cast of characters who all want revenge against the Germans for one reason or another. An Englishman raised in France is put in charge of a boat of Free French, Danish and odd English characters in a series of daring raids on the French Coast. Since it’s Shute you know it’s not going to end well although it was a better ending for some of the characters than I expected. It’s a bit of a slow burner as Shute spends over half the book setting up the characters, and plot. He also uses an interesting technique which serves to distance you from the action as the narrator stays in Britain whilst the action happens and then there’s a report of how the action went followed by a personal account by one of the men. It’s a bit odd and I’m not sure it worked all that well. Still this is a WW2 adventure story that ticks all the Shute boxes - engineering as hero, affection for transport (in this case boat), romantic involvement, manly men, action, pathos, a downbeat ending. Shute is one of my go to authors who seems to be consistently good but is a bit of a comfort read. Although this is perhaps not the best place to start with his catalogue.

Overall – Stiff upper lips and derring do in one of Shute’s boat novels ( )
4 vote psutto | Mar 12, 2014 |
Review A magnificent thrill; it is also a tale of character, for every member of the little ship's company is worth meeting. A book that should not be missed Daily Telegraph Mr Shute's style is ideal for this kind of book. He revels in incident and he draws his people with loving care. Here, he's reminiscent of H. E. Bates at his best; that same ability to make you passionately interested in anything he's interested in, and to make the most outlandish happening seem credible his characters are so real No other writer has brought to fiction of this type quite the same lively sympathy and warmth of imagination or left so engaging an impression of truthfulness...Mr Shute always has good things to offer...the power to convey the springs of heroic conduct in the lightest and least assuming of tones Times Literary Supplement Based around a group aboard a converted trawler in 1942, this is a grand tale of sacrifice and courage and superbly structured. --Express Product Description In their trusty fishing boat, Genevieve, armed with only a flame thrower and limited ammunition, a small group of officers and men take a stand against the might of the German army after the fall of France in World War II. ( )
  Hans.Michel | Sep 13, 2013 |
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A burnt child dreads the fire.
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So much happened in the two years that I spent at the Admirality, I had a finger in so many pies, that I have found it difficult to say exactly when it was this thing began.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0884113191, Hardcover)

In their trusty fishing boat Genevieve, armed with only a flame thrower and limited ammunition, a small group of officers and men take a stand against the might of the German army after the fall of France in World War II. This is classic Shute: a thrilling adventure about the heroism of ordinary men that will keep you on the edge of your seat, cheering them on.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:07 -0400)

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Genevieve is a converted French fishing boat, manned by British officers and a small crew of free French ex-fishermen, armed only with a flame-thrower and a few arms. They carry out their daring attack on German boats off the Brittany coast.

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