Book Review: A Valiant Deceit by Stephanie Graves

In Stephanie Graves' A Valiant Deceit, Olive Bright's role as a pigeoneer in WWII is complicated by a romantic relationship with her superior and the death of a lieutenant that she is determined to solve.

Pipley, Hertfordshire 16 August 1941. 

Olive Bright is a twenty-two-year-old pigeoneer and would-be spy. In Olive Bright, Pigeoneer (Olive Bright Mystery #1) Captain Jameson Aldridge conscripted Olive and the Bright Lofts’ pigeons to help in the fight against the Nazis. Homing pigeons greatly aided the war effort on both sides of the Atlantic, making A Valiant Deceit historically accurate.

It had only been a few months since he’d shown up at her dovecote to assess her pigeons and her character. Upon inspection, he’d been seemingly unimpressed with both. In the end, he’d grudgingly enlisted her to work for a hush-hush government organization, one so secret it was known to insiders only as Baker Street. She’d been conscripted for Station XVII, in particular: the special training school for sabotage, housed at nearby Brickendonbury Manor.

Olive reports to intelligence officer Jamie Aldridge. Her training of the racing pigeons is covert so when she and Jamie spend time together in the countryside—getting the pigeons ready for their missions—the Pipley villagers wonder what’s up. To satisfy their curiosity, Jamie and Olive concoct a romance. Olive is ambivalent about being “tethered indefinitely to a make-believe relationship with her superior officer,” because truthfully, although she quite likes Jamie, the ruse is stifling her social life. 

It is also stifling Olive’s ambitions to be trained as a spy. She has a good nose for suspicious activity and like her literary hero Hercule Poirot, she enjoys making lists of evidence. Because Olive endangered her life in Olive Bright, Pigeoneer, Jamie wants her to dial back her Mata Hari tendencies. Olive disagrees with him—she knows she has more to contribute to the war effort.

There’d been so many changes in the months since she’d ferreted out the murderer among them, and yet so much still remained the same. Like a child, she made a wish in the moment. A wish for something exciting, magical, and wonderful to happen to her.

Be careful what you wish for because something tragically exciting happens in nearby Balls Wood. During a ramble, a troop of Girl Guides discover the body of Lieutenant Jeremy Beckett. Jeremy was an instructor at Station XVII. After his demise, his top-secret status is not revealed to the public, and the police label his death accidental. Olive does not agree with the verdict. Based on clues she finds at the woodland scene, she’s sure a spy is amongst the crew at Brickendonbury Manor. Olive wonders how a spy might impact the mission of her precious pigeons. Might the Belgians who have been training in England to be underground agents be betrayed when they return to their homeland? “The German troops overran Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France in six weeks starting in May 1940.” It is poignant when the Belgians beg Olive for pigeons with Belgian ancestry. The Nazis destroyed countless Belgian dovecotes when they invaded—it’s personal.  Olive is touched by their sincere patriotism and their willingness to partner with her.

All her efforts in breeding and training her birds increased the Belgians’ chances of undermining the Nazi war machine. Any message they carried home could be pivotal. These agents had placed their trust in her, and she was determined not to let them down.

If there’s a cat aka spy among the pigeons, Olive’s pigeons will be in danger once they land in Belgium. Olive is very skilled at picking up subtle clues and deciphering who doesn’t belong and why so she resents Jamie doling out information to her in a miserly fashion. How can she ferret out the spy if she’s not in the know? 

When Olive is at home in Pipley, her pigeon-centered activities can’t be shared with her veterinarian father because she is bound by the Official Secrets Act. Everyone is involved with the war effort. There’s no sugar coating—a dreadfully burned young airman is recuperating in the village—and the village ladies are determined to raise his spirits by involving him to raise money for the war effort. It’s not just raising money-raising spirits is also vital to keep morale high in a war-torn world. It’s not surprising that the motto “Keep Calm and Carry On,” was created in 1939 by Britain’s wartime propaganda department.

Stephanie Graves’s author’s note resonates: “Historical fiction is constructed with a scaffolding of truth.”  A sturdy foundation bolsters the fictional events of A Valiant Deceit. I liked the story for its historical accuracy and for the clever way Olive’s investigative techniques mirror the ways of Agatha Christie’s heroes. To put Olive’s age and place in the home front’s war effort in context, she, like Queen Elizabeth II, is a member of Great Britain’s fast-disappearing Greatest Generation. Their bravery and constancy are worth remembering and honoring.

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