The unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

In 2020, during those early weeks of COVID lock-down, when we were not allowed into our Los Angeles Public Libraries, and the present and the future were beyond comprehension, it was good to have some personally owned books at home. There were two series that I turned to. One was the Mrs. Pollifax series. At the time, I owned only a hardcopy of Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled, which is the last book in the series, and that caused me to quickly order all the others in paperback, which I have reread over these past two years.  It is not necessary to read the books in order, but I recommend that you start with The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, so that you will see where her character starts and how it develops and grows. In this book, she is a widow whose days are filled with activities, but she is at loose ends and visits her physician who finds her to be, for a woman of her age, "in fantastically good health," but says, "I do note certain signs of depression." After some revealing, witty answers to his questions, he prescribes an antidepressant. At home in New Brusnwick, New Jersey, in the Hemlock Apartments, the questions and conversation with the doctor cause Mrs. Virgil Pollifax to think about what she has always wanted to do with her life, ever since she was a young girl. The prescription is cast aside and a new life begins.

Dorothy Gilman*, the author, accomplished a great deal in creating a fully fleshed out female protagonist, who is part sleuth and part spy. Even though the books are relatively short, some just over 200 pages, they are a compelling read, but not one that can be taken for granted. Through the development and action of the plots and characters Gilman offers insights into bureaucratic institutions and the people who run them; observations about different countries and cultures; and examinations about how people, in general, behave. These thoughts bring the same type of peeling back of human motivations that John le Carré achieved, but minus the cynicism. In the fourteen books in the series, there are not necessarily happy endings, but problems are resolved, which is not always the case with the books by le Carré, whose novels leave us with more questions and doubts about the human condition. The publishing history of the books begins in 1966 and ends in 2000. In referencing world occurrences, disasters, disagreements, there is a major feeling of deja vu:  political issues simmering in China; China and Russia vying for world power and control; the United States drawn into events that were not planned; and the CIA and FBI often in contention with each other, over which agency is doing a better job and which one has jurisdiction over problems.

In addition to Mrs. Pollifax, there is a small cast of recurring characters, but always there are Carstairs, Head of CIA and Bishop, his assistant. Mrs. Emily Pollfax starts out as a courier, a seemingly innocuous job, but soon advances as her assignments change because world events heat up.  As in the James Bond series, food is noted, but of a more down-to-earth type. Freshly brewed coffee is vital. Unlike Bond, Emily Pollifax does not have a license to kill, but when necessary, kill she does, at least twice.

Here are some tantalizing quotes from A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax (#4 in the series):

  • “Mr. Carstairs’s office calling, will you hold, please?” Mrs. Pollifax is happy to wait, “ … because the call meant that her life was about to accelerate again, adjust to that fine edge of danger  … [that] exacted the most scrupulous awareness in order to survive.” p. 9

  • Carstairs tells her, “Well it’s not every member of the New Brunswick Garden Club who can be expelled from Bulgaria, is it? Ushered to the airport and told to get out and stay out, forcibly and irrevocably. Let’s see what you can do with Switzerland..” p. 10

  • Carstairs informs her, “I have a feeling that this situation needs something more than training and experience.  It needs a rare kind of intuitiveness, a talent for sniffing out what others miss. You’re rather good with people, and you simply don’t act or react like a professional agent.” And then he adds, “ What we are looking for … is evil in its purest form.” p. 13

For the entire series just click here.

*2010, Dorothy Gilman was presented with the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America.