Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman (Mrs. Pollifax #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful character; great plot
Cons: A tad slow in the middle; just at the edge of believability
The Bottom Line:
Unlikeliest spy
In middle of cold war plot
Means page turning fun

Introduction of the Charming Mrs. Pollifax

It was almost two decades ago that I first found the adventures of Mrs. Pollifax, the CIA's senior spy. I was inspired to reread the series recently. Naturally, the logical place to start is with the first book in the series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

Since the series was written over 35 years, Mrs. Pollifax never ages even though the enemies she fights against change with the times. The key to appreciating the series, therefore, is to remember that each book takes place in the year it was written. For this book, the year is 1966, and the cold war is very much a hot issue.

Mrs. Pollifax is bored. Her kids have grown and her husband has passed away. She enjoys her volunteer work and her garden club membership, but she's looking for some purpose in her life again.

She decides to pursue the one thing she's always wanted to do. She travels to Langley, Virginia and marches into CIA headquarters to volunteer her services.

At the same time, Mr. Carstairs is looking for a currier. He wants someone unknown and innocent looking who will be able to pass for a tourist. When he accidentally meets Mrs. Pollifax, he knows he has found his agent. The fact that she has no training is fine since, while the situation is dangerous, she shouldn't be in any real danger.

She's given a three-week vacation to Mexico. Her only job is to walk into a bookstore on a certain day, utter a few code phrases, and bring the package with her back to Carstairs. What could be simpler?

However, when the appointed day arrives, she walks into the bookstore and is promptly kidnapped. Soon she finds herself on a plane with another agent being taken to who knows where. She's stumbled into a situation way beyond her experience. What she does know is, it's her duty to escape. And with a little luck and some planning, she just might do it.

This book is so much more fun then I remembered. Mrs. Pollifax is an absolute hoot to watch in action. She is extremely naive about the world she has just entered. Her enthusiasm and desire to do everything correctly is hilarious. Her treatment of her captors is a riot as well.

While she is naive, she is not stupid, an important distinction. It takes all of her brain and ingenuity to create the escape plan, and even then, she figures out some things about their guards that almost create more of a problem for them. Even Farrell, the agent captured with her, only puts stock in her plan after she has done much of the planning.

Most of the other characters are well developed as well. This is especially true of Farrell, who, next to Mrs. Pollifax, gets the most page time. Some of the guards stand out as well. The least developed characters in this entry are Carstairs and his secretary Bishop. But that's because, while important characters to the series, they really have little to do.

The story itself moves along at a brisk pace. This book does have the slowest start of any in the series because it needs to set up the premise. However, even that is entertaining. It slows down slightly in the middle but then picks up speed for the breakneck final third. The first time I read the book, I couldn't stop once I hit that point, even though I knew how it had to end. This time wasn't much better. It's that good.

While it tries hard, the story does strain believability on a few points. Honestly, however, they're minor, and it's easy to fall under the charm of the story. Of course, this is helped by a writing style that draws you into the events and makes you believe it can happen.

I'm young enough that I didn't live through this specific period and my memories of the end of the Cold War are fuzzy. I don't know how accurate the world relationships portrayed here are. But I do know they make for an interesting story and create a picture of the cold war I hadn't considered before.

This series is still one of my favorites, and The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is still one of my favorites in the series. It is a great way to escape from reality and experience a world not too far gone.

And you'll definitely want to read the Mrs. Pollifax Series in order.


  1. Coming late to these early reviews of yours, Mark, and they confirm what I've long suspected: we have very similar taste in reading material.

    I too have long enjoyed Mrs. Pollifax's adventures. Despite their stretching of credulity, they retain their essential human-ness in Emily's wonderful curiosity and optimism about the people she meets. So many of the secondary characters live on in my brain, and pop out at intervals when their real-life counterparts cross my path. My 'Sandor', for example, isn't a Turkish undercover agent, but he looks and sounds much the same.

    1. You are right - I think the characters are much of the charm of these books, from Mrs. Pollifax down to everyone else. And they are just such fun, it's hard to dislike them (not that I've tried).

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Above comment from KJ was me. I forgot this particular laptop defaults to my husband's google account.

      I have not tried to pick them apart much either. :-) Her earliest handful of titles are kept in the bookshelf reserved for 'any time I need a guaranteed humourous escape' along with the Monsieur Pamplemousse books by Michael Bond.

  2. I LOVE THIS SERIES! Read them all since I was a teen. :-D Now I know how you got the name "Carstairs." Perfect!

    1. I've found there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who get the connection and those who haven't found Mrs. Pollifax yet. I'm trying to make more of the people from the second category into people from the first category.

  3. I wish I encountered your website before! You are reviewing two of my favourite series-Mrs Polifax and Trixie Belden! (What a combination!) I am a photographer and travel across North America quite a bit. Between that and editing, I have much more time to listen to audiobooks than to read books. So, I digitised all my cassette audios including the entire Mrs Polifax series (read by the delightful Barbara Rosenblat) This wasn't my favourite of the series, although it did introduce Farill. He kind of reminds me of a tougher, older brother to Bishop. I like how this series has intrigue without the gritty violence, swearing and sex of so many spy novels. I always introduce my two favourite spy series this way. Mrs. Polifax is kind of like James Bond's kindly aunt, and Alex Rider is James Bond's nephew once removed! I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

    1. Well, welcome now!

      I'm actually not a fan of the audio version of Mrs. Pollifax. I don't think the narrator gets her character right. Funny how that can make a difference to us, right?

      I like your description of the series. I haven't heard of Alex Rider, but I may need to fix that.

    2. Hmm... I like Mrs. Pollifax for 2 reasons, one, the fun stories and characters and two, the narration by Barbara Rosenblat. I can't imagine the story without her doing all the voices. (Same with Harry Potter and Jim Dale...)

  4. Sorry-I am just commenting again because I forgot to ask the website to notify me when/if more comments are made