Dorothy Gilman’s Neglected Mrs. Pollifax

Mar 21, 2015 | 2015 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

If you read and enjoy thrillers, you are probably familiar with those written about and during the Cold War (roughly between 1947 and 1991). The spy literature this era spawned is still classic and includes authors Ian Fleming, John LeCarre, Len Deighton, Alistair McLean, Frederick Forsythe, and Robert Ludlum, among many others.

However, fewer readers may know Dorothy Gilman’s CIA agent, Mrs. Pollifax. I don’t think of these 14 novels as cozies since one travels the world with her on what should be simple courier missions, but always evolve perilously. Even though Mrs. Pollifax is a little old lady—she has depth, courage, skills, and actually isn’t “sweet.”

Admittedly, Mrs. Pollifax might not be the obvious choice for spy material. She is a widowed grandmother, in her 60s, a member of a garden club, lives in New Jersey, and seems to lack the usual skill set we expect in CIA recruits. The genre is famous for its male agents who are usually between 30 and 50, are known for their ruthlessness, and are gun- and gadget-savvy. The talents she has when she first offers her services to the CIA—the power of keen observation, passing beautifully as an elderly American tourist, an ability to fit in to any type of gathering, and radiating a non-elitist patriotism—do get her hired by the agency, even though it’s initially a mistake. She adds to her skills in each assignment, becoming increasingly formidable and indispensable to her employers.

bookWe meet her initially in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966) where she is quickly sent as a courier to Mexico, but soon ends up a prisoner in Albania, ready to withstand what promises to be a most unpleasant interrogation. To say she is fearless may not be quite accurate, but how she faces adversity is the personification of courage that she gained by raising her children. In fact, the recurring characters Carstairs, Bishop, and Farrell, for whom she works, have a decided emotional connection to her that is due in no small part to the “earth mother” quality that wins all of us over. Remember, these novels were written during the Age of Aquarius, the fact that she is a moon child has more than a little to do with how and why she is successful. The resolution of the mission proves her to be quite canny and resourceful, when, despite the odds, she and her fellow captives escape successfully.

bookMrs. Pollifax is so successful in her first mission that she is soon caught up in international intrigue again in The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax (1970). She travels to Turkey to bring in a Russian spy who wishes to defect to the West. Naturally, nothing is as it is purported to be—the defector’s motives are not only suspect but he disappears almost immediately before any plans to retrieve him can be put in play. Mrs. Pollifax finds she must unmask a double agent or two in the course of the mission, and she finds unexpected allies among those who have been oppressed under the current political regime. Not unexpectedly, she falls in with the Roma, Gypsy travelers well-known in Central Europe.

The third in the series, The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax (1971) returns her to the role of courier, smuggling passports (among other things) to the underground in Bulgaria, a task not made easier by her falling in with American students on tour who need her help. She aids not only the students, but manages to be of help to political prisoners held in the notorious Panchevsky Institute to escape.

I’m on number ten in the series, Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief, and have enjoyed each one—the quality doesn’t falter with the quantity. Mrs. Pollifax has more in common than not with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, but I have found her to be less theoretical than St. Mary Mead’s most prominent resident. Mrs. Pollifax is much more engaged in the world rather than observing it from a distance, as Miss Marple is prone to do. Both are remarkable women much to be admired.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.

4 Comments

  1. Mrs Pollifax is one of the best characters ever created. I have loved her for years.

    Reply
    • Totally agree. I know she’s one character I will return to and re-read.

      Reply
  2. I first discovered the Mrs. Pollifax books as a teenager and eagerly devoured them. She’s such a great character, and I love the way she grows and adds to her skill set with each book, while retaining the characteristics that make her so sweet.

    Reply
  3. I wish I’d discovered her years ago myself. I think her most salient characteristic is gentleness, followed closely by courage.
    What’s not to love?

    Reply

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