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

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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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