Stephanie Graves: A Courage Undimmed

A Courage Undimmed is the third book in Stephanie Graves’ World War II series set in the British village of Pipley, Hertfordshire.  It features Olive Bright, pigeoneer and village sleuth, who serves as a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) at the nearby manor house, which has been turned into Station XVII, a training facility for agents in a top-secret operation known as Baker Street.  Olive is in charge of her father’s carrier pigeons.  In the first book, she placed the pigeons in service with Baker Street after the National Pigeon Service rejected them because of her father’s abrasive personality.  The pigeons are dropped into occupied Europe along with the agents and carry messages back from them, about enemy infrastructure and troop movements.

As part of the arrangement with Baker Street, Olive has to lie to her family about the pigeons’ activities, and she pretends that the National Pigeon Service has accepted them, after all.  She also has to pretend to be in a romantic relationship with her superior officer, Captain Jamie Aldridge.  This is complicated by the fact that Olive is beginning to have genuine romantic feelings for Jamie, although she doesn’t know how he feels about her.  The romance between Olive and Jamie has been slowly developing through the series.  He seems to be a haughty and emotionally reserved person when Olive first meets him.  (In the first book, the villagers are putting on a play of Pride and Prejudice, and Jamie would have been perfectly cast as Darcy, even though the role goes to someone else.)  Eventually, though, you see that he really cares about Olive.  Without giving too much away, their romance takes a satisfactory turn in this book, but leaves plenty of room for further developments.

This particular entry in the series takes place in November and December 1941, around the time of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war, which Olive and her family greet with enthusiasm, since they know England will no longer stand alone against the Nazis.  Before going any further into the plot, I have to say that Olive’s family is one of the strengths of the series: her irascible father, her stepmother Harriet, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and Jonathon, an evacuee who lives with the family and who serves as assistant pigeoneer.  Jonathon, a clever and resourceful boy of around twelve or thirteen, is the only member of the family who is aware of Olive’s clandestine activities, because he accidentally witnessed the first encounter between Olive and Jamie and had to sign the Official Secrets Act.  Harriet is active with the WI (Women’s Institute), which organizes various activities in the village.  Olive and her family seem like real people, and it is easy for the reader to relate to them.  As the series continues, you get to know them better and better.

As the novel begins, changes are taking place at Station XVII.  A new commanding officer, whose code name is Major Blighty, arrives after the previous leader, Major Boom, is transferred to a different facility.  (Everyone at Station XVII, including Jamie, goes by a code name.  In this book, Olive finds out what Jamie’s real name is, although, frustratingly, the reader does not.)  Major Blighty is a rigid disciplinarian who disapproves of women taking an active role in the war.  Needless to say, he and Olive take an immediate dislike to each other.  Blighty talks about eliminating the position of pigeoneer.  He doesn’t fully understand the importance of pigeons to the war effort and, with the colder weather, the pigeons won’t be flying so often.  Blighty assigns Olive the task of escorting a visiting officer of the Royal Navy, none other than Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, around the station.  Fleming is portrayed as aloof and egotistical, and he shares Blighty’s misogynist views on women’s role in the war.  Actually, I was hoping Fleming would have a larger role in the book than he ended up having, and I wonder if Graves will bring him back in a future novel.  There is a delightful scene where Olive tells Fleming about her love for Agatha Christie, especially Hercule Poirot, and he says Christie is too tame for him, and if he ever becomes an author, he will write action-packed thrillers.

Shortly after Fleming arrives in Pipley, Olive takes him to a séance.  A newcomer to the village, Velda Dunbar, claims to be a spiritualist medium.  During a demonstration of her “talents” on the village green, Mrs. Dunbar supposedly summons the spirit of a dead seaman, who claims to have gone down with the HMS Bartholomew.  Two men of the village were on that ship, but their families don’t believe the Bartholomew really sank, because there was no announcement on the radio and they haven’t received telegrams.  One of the women of the village invites Mrs. Dunbar to give a séance at her home.  Without fully explaining his reasons to Olive, Fleming says he wants to attend, and hints that Mrs. Dunbar has knowledge of information that only insiders at the Royal Navy would have heard about, and he wants to know her sources.  The villagers have varying degrees of belief or skepticism about Mrs. Dunbar’s abilities.  One is a true enthusiast for astrology and spiritualism.  Some others want to try to contact loved ones who have died.  (As Graves explains in her author’s note, spiritualism saw a rise in popularity during World War II because so many people had lost loved ones.)  Olive is basically skeptical, but her natural curiosity makes her want to see the medium at work and discover her methods.

The séance goes disastrously wrong as Mrs. Dunbar drops dead in the middle of her act.  The results of the autopsy show that she was poisoned, and that the poison was a fast-acting one, administered shortly before her death, so only someone who was present at the séance could have killed her.  Except for Fleming and the victim’s husband, who are quickly eliminated as suspects, they are all people Olive knows and likes.  She has a hard time believing one of them could be a murderer, but she can come to no other conclusion.  The local policeman, who is unimaginative and not terribly intelligent, suggests bringing in specialists from the Royal Navy to investigate, and Olive decides to find the murderer before that can happen.  Of course she does, and to say any more would be a spoiler, but the solution proves to be a very clever one.  I’m sure Agatha Christie would approve.

Throughout the book, while working to solve the village mystery, Olive is thinking about training to be an agent.  She is frustrated about not being able to take a more active role in the war, but at the same time she expresses doubts that she has what it takes to be an agent, and this is not helped by the fact that Jamie seems to share her doubts.  Olive has many of the qualities that would make a good agent.  She is intelligent, courageous (although she doesn’t see this herself), excellent at languages, skilled at hand-to-hand fighting, and she is also a crack shot.  But she does not like to follow orders, and she can be reckless.  More than once, she has put herself in a situation where she very nearly lost her life because she was too eager to confront the murderer.  Olive knows this of herself, and this is where her doubts come from.  She also doesn’t know how she would act if she were to be dropped into enemy territory: if she would be able to maintain an alias, and if she would give anything away if captured and tortured.  Her self-doubt makes her seem very real, and I sympathized with her dilemma.

Another plot thread involves Czech resistance fighters who are training at Station XVII for a secret mission to their occupied homeland.  Olive sends three of her best pigeons along with them, and the first task in her agent training, before she makes her decision whether to continue with it or not, is to discover the nature of their mission.  Graves explains in her author’s note that these members of the Czech resistance were real people, and the operation for which they trained really took place.  The role of Olive’s pigeons in it is, of course, fictional.

Graves weaves together these various plot threads very well, and A Courage Undimmed works equally well as a village mystery and a war/espionage story.  I love the character of Olive, who is a strong, courageous, but vulnerable heroine.  I wish there were more about the pigeons, but what we see of them is fascinating.  Each pigeon has its own personality, and the reader cares about them and feels sad when, as is inevitable, at least one fails to return.  Olive’s pigeons are all named after characters in children’s literature, and I am beginning to have favorites among them.  My particular favorite is Mary Poppins, but I also like Robin Hood and Aramis.  This is proving to be one of the better World War II series out there, and I love the way it explores a neglected aspect of the war.  I would recommend reading the previous two volumes first, because you will see how Olive’s character, and her relationship with Jamie, develops, but this book can stand on its own.  I hope to see much more of Olive and her pigeons in the future. — Vicki Kondelik


Vicki Kondelik is a cataloger at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library, and edits their book review blog, Lost in the Stacks.   She writes book reviews for the Historical Novel Society, and is currently writing a historical novel.  She has been an avid mystery reader for a long time.