So Disdained was Nevil Shute’s second book. It was written in the evenings over a three year period while he was working as an engineer on aircraft and was published when he was 29 years old.
I’ve read many of his books and they tend to depict very ordinary people who are placed into situations often not of their own choosing that call out courage and heroism.
So Disdained and his earlier and first book, Marazan, are somewhat different.
In 1951, twenty-three years after So Disdained was first published, Shute wrote in a new edition of his book that in 1929 he was ‘still obsessed with standard subjects as a source of drama – spying, detection, and murder, so seldom encountered by people in real life.’
His views had also changed since then, but apart from removing some outdated slang, he made no other changes. I’ll comment on that later on, but first a wee peek at the story itself.
Peter Moran was agent and steward to Lord Arner, an elderly diplomat. Moran had been a pilot in the war, was shot down in 1917 and hadn’t flown since. He was a bachelor and lived on Lord Arner’s estate in the steward’s house. In his spare time he composed music for the piano.
Late one night, as he was driving home over the Sussex Downs in the pelting rain, he saw a man walking along, drenched and hatless, and stopped to pick him up.
When the man got in the car Moran recognised him as Maurice Lenden, a fellow pilot who served with him in the same squadron in 1917 and that he was dressed for flying.
Lenden was cagey and just wanted a lift to the train station but Moran persuaded him to stay the night with him.
He discovered that Lenden had crash-landed a French high-speed bomber on Lord Arner’s property that night and was now abandoning it for reasons Moran was to find out soon enough.
Lenden had married in 1918 and left the Squadron at Armistice with the intention of establishing a home with his wife and starting a family. But everything went wrong work-wise. His wife went back and forward to her parents’ home when there was not enough money coming in and eventually she filed for divorce.
With nothing to keep him in England and nowhere to live, he looked for a chance to leave the county. That chance came when he read an article in the newspaper about the ‘Red Menace‘ and how the Russians were getting hold of British ex-officers, sending them out to Russia to train the Red Army, and were paying them very good money. Lenden went off to the Soviet Embassy and within a few days be was on his way with a forged passport.
After he had been in Russia for a while he was asked to do a special job – night photographs of Portsmouth Harbour – for which he would receive a thousand pounds sterling. This money would set him up back home so he accepted the job.
Now he was back in England with the photographs he had taken on his night flights. He had no idea what he should do now, and as the two men sat up through the night talking, it became clear to Moran that the man was not well and was shivering.
Lenden was bedridden and delirious for a few days, and while he was recovering, Lord Arner received a visit from an R.A.F. Officer investigating the affair at Portsmouth. Lenden’s plane had been spotted and was thought to have landed in the area. Now Moran was in the thick of it, and for various reasons, he didn’t reveal what he knew.
When Sanders, the butler was shot and injured during a supposed burglary, it became obvious to Moran that the Russians suspected something was amiss and were after Lenden.
Moran’s involvement compelled him to embark on his own aerial mission into Italy where the Russians had an undercover staging house for their foreign ‘employees.’
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Shute’s views had changed somewhat since he first wrote this book. I imagine that included his views of political groups. In Italy, Moran decided that he needed allies, and that the most obvious people to set against the Bolsheviks were the Fascisti. When a group of them paraded in the town square ready for action Moran observed that,
‘I liked the look of them…They were a fine straight body of young men, dressed in field-green breeches and black shirts and each armed with a sort of truncheon.’
Earlier in the story, Shute lets loose some little foreshadowing remarks that add suspense to the story. One of these is an older Moran reflecting back on his past and alluding to something that happened on his mission – three of his fingers that had been badly broken and affected his piano playing as his broken fingers stiffened with age. Another was some remarks that mentioned his future relationship with Sheila, Lord Arner’s niece, whom he had known since she was at school. I thought this relationship was handled very sweetly.
‘The sun was just disappearing behind the down; in the fading light the soft brown hair clustered about her neck was all streaked and shot with gold. I had loved her for two years, and I had given up being hurt by things like that.’
I always enjoy Nevil Shute’s writing and it was interesting to read one of his early books written between the two world wars when he was ‘obsessed’ with spying, detection and murder. Moran’s first impressions of Fascism were interesting; he also had conversations with an English trade unionist who was a devoted Communist, and although Moran disagreed with him and told him he should go to Russia and see how the average worker really lived, he also admired his courage.
So Disdained was published in the USA as The Mysterious Aviator which Shute thought was an uninspiring title.
The book is in the Public Domain in Canada and may be found at Gutenberg, Canada, and also here at Faded Page.
Linking to the 2022 Cloak and Dagger Challenge.