I suppose that, until a month ago, it was more than 35 years since I’d read a Nevil Shute novel. I’ve so far hoovered my way through ten, and I’ve just finished No Highway. It’s such a long time since I read it that I might as well never have read it at all, and I read it very fast, was held in its grip. I don’t think I’d go so far as the Pan puff-makers of his day, who called him ‘the prince of story-tellers’, but he is an interesting case of a writer who makes what are, to a contemporary eye, some narrative howlers, but who nevertheless gets away with it (the attitudes to men and women, and sometimes also to race and religion, are not so easy to live with, but then, neither are those of (say) Dickens).
From a technical point of view, he gets his narrators into complex difficulty, in that, since they are first person narrators, and yet sometimes only tangentially involved in the plot (the narrator of No Highway is more involved than in others), they cannot do anything but reconstruct what has happened other than by asking those involved and adding ‘And this is what he told me.’ Thus, for instance, in Most Secret, the senior naval officer telling us the tale tells us three separate tales of what happened when a mission goes wrong, as separately relayed to him by those involved. In doing so, the narrator starts to act like an author, allowing himself to reveal what his characters are thinking by using free indirect speech. It is immensely confusing, but in its own way also quite cunning, since the narrators are almost always laconic types given to understatement. The narrator of No Highway, for instance, even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t like reading novels, as his wife does – at the very point when we are coming to the end of the ‘account’ she has persuaded him to write.
It’s almost a text-book example of how not to do with it, except that, in other ways he is quite brilliant with character. The boffin at the heart of No Highway (1948), who is described as ‘frog-eyed’, and who believes in the power of the planchette, and that Christ will return to Glastonbury when the world comes to an end in 1994 (how futuristic that must have sounded!), is the one who also believes that metal fatigue will set in at about 1440 hours of the flight of the main planes in transatlantic service. He is therefore a deeply suspect figure. But bit by bit, Shute works against the stereotype of the cracked scientist, and actually makes him the subject of the main love interest in the novel – and also has him take direct action against a plane in a quite unexpected way. And the proof of the fatigue, although it is agreed by the authorities that this should be hushed up, comes when the boffin’s daughter uses a planchette. In another instance, the designer of the plane is initially depicted as a self-seeking, vain and dangerously suave individual, but, the more he is developed, the more this initial depiction of him is unpicked. And Shute also deploys one of the novelist’s most powerful tricks – switching to a different thread of the story just when the reader wants to stick with the one he’s on – to considerable effect.
Shute tells when he should be showing, and he packs the books with his own fascination with all things aeronautical, almost to breaking-point, but he never loses the reader, despite it. About the worst crime he commits is – and he does it with terrible frequency – is starting a sentence with the word ‘Presently’. That almost does for me, every time. But he seems in a class of his own at other times – in fact, it’s as if he has invented and perfected a class of narrator we might call ‘artless’.
It might be the patina, as it were, of the old Pan series, that helps me through the novels, but, having tuned in, I am finding it hard to tune out. I’ve never seen the 1951 film. I must track it down.