Mrs. Pollifax (Book Series Review)

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax of New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a widow with grown, married children. She was tired of attending her Garden Club meetings. She wanted to do something good for her country. So, naturally, she became a CIA agent. Or rather, accidentally, she became a CIA agent. She was precisely what Mr. Carstairs was looking for and not at all who he thought she actually was.

In a case of mistaken identity and with the CIA remarkably short on “sweet older ladies who seem harmless”, Mrs. Pollifax finds herself setting off on an exciting international adventure to Mexico City. She was a bit disappointed to learn that her great foray into espionage wasn’t actually supposed to involve anything too exciting. But then the winds change and something goes terribly wrong. Suddenly Mrs. Pollifax is caught up in a murder and finds herself warding off dictators and combatant spies alike as her brief jaunt to Mexico suddenly changes to a whirlwind trip to unexpected lands.

Carstairs is fit to be tied. His assistant Bishop is pulling out his hair. And the enemy is discovering that maybe that sweet little lady with a penchant for gardening and funny little hats might just be more of a match than anticipated! Can Mrs. Pollifax save the day and what is up with this odd man imprisoned beside her?

“But isn’t there something you’ve always longed to do, something you’ve never had either the time or the freedom to do until now?”

Mrs. Pollifax looked at him. “When I was group up — oh for years — I wanted to become a spy,” she admitted.

The Doctor threw back his head and laughed, and Mrs. Pollifax wondered why, when she was being her most serious, people found her so amusing.

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (Page 3).

Ms. Gilman was an American author prolific from the 1940s – 2002. She initially attended school to become an author and illustrator of children’s books and did write many works for children under her married name Dorothy Gilman Butters through the 1960s.

In 1966, a year after her divorce from a fellow teacher, Ms. Gilman returned to her maiden name and published “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax”, the first in a series that placed Ms. Gilman firmly in the list of beloved mystery authors. Her creation, Emily Pollifax, is a charming and grandmotherly older woman who lives alone with her children long grown. Facing an existential crisis and perhaps the twinges of depression at feeling somewhat useless and bored with senior life, Mrs. Pollifax finds herself looking for a new start. It comes, rather unexpectedly, as a much cherished spy for the CIA (to the nightmare of her handlers and the unending amusement of her colleagues).

The Mrs. Pollifax series would go on to include 14 novels and reflects both Gilman’s own experiences and the nature of the era in which she wrote. A frequent traveler herself, Gilman’s novels slip seamlessly across the globe with Mrs. Pollifax whirling from Mexico to the Middle East to China and more. Many of the “villains” in her novels reflect the war on Communism with many featuring regional dictators, Cold War spies, nuclear secrets, and local revolutionaries warring for human rights and freedoms. The novels are not strongly feminist, but Gilman’s obvious support for woman’s rights permeate many of the novels.

One of the endearing parts of the series is that there is a touch of hope in the works for readers who are perhaps sharing Mrs. Pollifax’s struggles with the twilight years and the end of what seems to be opportunities available only for the young. The theme that one is still needed by one’s friends, community, and society – that there is still contributions to make and adventure to be had. That aging merely signifies greater opportunity and more available time to partake in the excitements of life.

The series almost fits into a “Cozy Mysteries” list reminiscent of Mrs. Marple or Mrs. Bradley, but are substantially more oriented around political and social issues (spy not private detective) which gives it that slightly more graphic element. Most of the novels are relatively free of violence or bloodshed, though one or two touch on torture and psychological warfare. Generally, it’s a fun series full of humor, lively characters, and exciting quests to save the world just one more time.

The Mrs. Pollifax Mysteries in Chronological Order

1The Unexpected Mrs. PollifaxMrs. Pollifax takes on a “job” in Mexico City. The assignment doesn’t sound dangerous at first, but then, as often happens, something goes wrong. Now our dear Mrs. Pollifax finds herself embroiled in quite a hot Cold War—and her country’s enemies find themselves entangled with one unbelievably feisty lady.
2The Amazing Mrs. PollifaxWhen Emily Pollifax answered the phone that Sunday morning she quickly forgot about her Garden Club tea in the afternoon. The last time she had heard the voice on the other end of the line it had sent of her off on a journey that plunged her into a wild tangle of secret agents and high adventure.
Now the man from the CIA was asking if she could leave immediately on a mission that would take her halfway across the world. What could Mrs. Pollifax say but yes?
3The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax"If you make it across the border, get us help. Some of us care. Do you understand? Right now we desperately need passports and identity papers. The arrests grow insane."
At the very hour this message was en route to the CIA, Mrs. Pollifax was waiting for her night-blooming cereus to do its thing.
She hardly got to see it, however, because Mr. Carstairs was already on his way to recruit that gallant lady for another daring mission.
Soon the most unlikely of all international spies was sporting a beautiful new hat—perfect for hiding eight forged passports.
4A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax“What we are looking for—aside from the stolen Plutonium, Mrs. Pollifax—is evil in its purest form.”
Mrs. Pollifax was leading a very full life: Garden Club, karate, yoga—and a little spying now and then. This time the mysterious Mr. Carstairs sent her to Switzerland—to a famous health resort where the world’s intelligence agents had gathered.
The mission: to track down a missing package of plutonium. Just enough to make a small atom bomb.
It was a job that suited Mrs. Pollifax’s talents. She was good with people—and good at sniffing out their secrets. But it was not until she became enchanted with Robin, the young jewel thief, that her new adventure really began. . . .
5Mrs. Pollifax on SafariNow the incredible Mrs. Pollifax has been sent on a safari to smoke out a very clever international assassin whose next target is the president of Zambia.
“Just take a lot of pictures of everyone on that safari,” the CIA man told her. “One of them has to be our man.”
It sounded simple enough. But it wasn't. Because shortly after Mrs. Pollifax started taking pictures, someone stole her film. And right after that she was kidnapped by Rhodesian terrorists. And right after that—well, read for yourself. . .
6Mrs. Pollifax on the China StationThe cheerful Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax of New Brunswick, New Jersey, is once again plunged headfirst into a hair-raising CIA mission.
Posing as a tourist in China, Mrs. Pollifax meets the sinister challenges of the Orient to safeguard a treasure for the CIA . . . and all but loses her life in the bargain.
7Mrs. Pollifax & the Hong Kong BuddhaAlthough recently married, Mrs. Pollifax is packed and ready to go to China, where a young agent, Sheng Ti, holds the answers to goings on at the sinister Feng Imports--a one-time agency front. Only Mrs. Pollifax has earned Sheng's trust, and only she can possibly stop what turns out to be a frightening and ominous plot involving drugs, smuggled diamonds, a famous cat burglar turned Interpol agent, a mysterious psychic, and, of course, murder.....possibly her own!
8Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden TriangleAlthough Mrs. Pollifax is determined to give up spying for good, she can't help but agree to carry a small object to an agent in Thailand, and get one in return. The moment she lands, however, Mrs. Pollifax is horrified to find her contact dead and her husband kidnapped. The next thing she knows, she's tramping through the ominous Thai countryside, led by a curious fellow who may be trying to help her find her husband. Or he may have other, more sinister plans....
9Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling DervishMrs. Pollifax is on hand in Morocco to back up an inept CIA agent, and it's a good thing. Their first informant is killed, and Mrs. Pollifax begins to get the idea that her colleague is not who he says he is. Still, she forges ahead, checking out suspicious informants, and coming to the conclusion that someone is an imposter and someone wants her dead....
10Mrs. Pollifax and the Second ThiefThe assignment is a snap: Mrs. Pollifax just has to shoot some pictures at a quiet funeral outside Washington and take them to Sicily, where her old friend Farrell -- a former CIA agent turned art dealer -- anxiously awaits them.
But like all Mrs. P's assignments, so ostensibly suitable for the CIA's favorite garden club member, this one quickly turns lethal. Her welcoming committee in Palermo includes a most unlikely CIA agent and several unseen enemies. Unfriendly eyes also observe Mrs. P's rendezvous with Farrell in a secluded mountain village and weapons are soon displayed. With mysterious forces hot after them, she and Farrell scurry for safety to a fortified country villa, where the bizarre chatelaine, once a star on Madison Avenue, is almost as unnerving as the dangers she's protecting them from.
So, though the sun shines brightly, the food is delicious, and romance is in the air, Mrs. Pollifax is too busy handing out karate chops and playing catch-me-if-you-can with an assassin to enjoy the amenities . . . .
11Mrs. Pollifax PursuedThe last thing Mrs. Pollifax expects to find in her junk closet is a young woman hiding. Kadi Hopkirk insists that she's being followed by two men in a dirty white van. Under the cover of darkness, Mrs. P. tries to drive Kadi back home to Manhattan, only to have a dark green sedan give them a run for their money and, Mrs. P. begins to suspect, their lives.
Finally Kadi shares the startling truth: her friend, Sammy, is the son of the assassinated president of an African country and, unbeknownst to the young man's bodyguard, he passed her something under the table during a recent meeting. Ever resourceful, Mrs. P. puts in a call for help to her CIA colleague, Carstairs, who installs them in a safe house--at a carnival! Before Mrs. P. knows it, a dash to safety expands into an assignment that leads to hair-trigger violence in exotic places....
12Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion KillerIn response to a desperate SOS, Kadi Hopkirk flies to the African country of Ubangiba, where her childhood friend, Sammat, is soon to be crowned king. Mrs. Pollifax, reluctant to allow the girl to venture alone into what she fears may be grave danger, crashes the party.
On arrival, Kadi and Mrs. P. soon discover that Sammat has dangerous enemies. Rumors are springing up that he is a sorcerer who is responsible for a rash of shocking murders in which the victims appear to have been clawed to death by a lion. These crimes are especially terrifying because there are no lions in Ubangiba. So Mrs. Pollifax wades into the fray, hunting for the source of the bloody terrorism that threatens Sammat and Ubangiba--not to mention Kadi and Mrs. Pollifax. . . .
13Mrs. Pollifax: Innocent TouristWorking with her retired CIA friend John Farrell, Mrs. Pollifax must smuggle a manuscript out of Jordan, a document that encodes the shocking truth of Saddam Hussein's reign.
Hardly are the two airborne when the coils of Middle Eastern intrigue begin to unwind. Mrs. Pollifax's seatmate is not the affable Arab businessman he pretends to be. It is not imagination that persuades Mrs. P. that wherever they go, she and Farrell are followed. To elude their pursuers in such a politically volatile country isn't easy. In fact, it can be downright deadly. . .
14Mrs. Pollifax UnveiledAfter facing down hijackers on a flight to the Middle East and saving the lives of the passengers on board, a young American woman steps off the plane in Damascus in a blaze of celebrity and disappears. The CIA believes Amanda Pym was kidnapped, possibly murdered.
Masquerading as Amanda Pym’s worried aunt, Mrs. Pollifax begins her determined search, slipping through Damascus’s crooked streets and crowded souks . . . and trekking deep into the desert. Yet she is shadowed by deadly enemies, whose sinister agenda threatens not only Mrs. P. but the fragile stability of the entire Middle East. Only a miracle–or a brilliant counterplot—can forestall a disaster that will send shock waves around the world.

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1999) — The Movie Database (TMDb)

There are two film adaptations of Mrs. Pollifax to date, although there is great potential for a full series.

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