Monday, October 24, 2011

Mrs. Pollifax mysteries - Dorothy Gilman

A kind reader sent me a list of mystery writers that I hadn’t read. These are old school mysteries and the indescribable charm of these writers, their clever plots and their very appealing characters make reading a totally satisfying experience. Some of these books are available on Gutenberg as well.

Maybe this will turn into a series of posts  – but for now, I am starting with Dorothy Gilman (1923 -) – focusing specifically on her Mrs. Pollifax mysteries –  Gilman has written other general fiction that are vastly different from the Mrs. Pollifax books, so go ahead and explore the rest of Gilman’s repertoire if detective fiction is not your genre.

There are 14 books featuring Mrs. Pollifax and each of them have certain characteristic features – Mrs. Pollifax always sets out on simple jobs which however turn complicated, dangerous and generally end with her barely cheating death and very content with her adventure.  Along the way she discovers reserves of strength she didn’t know she had and meets some outright villains, makes friends with a  vast number of characters, some relevant to her case, some just because Mrs. Pollifax loves people. No wonder her postman is amazed by the letters she gets from exotic locales.

The exotic locale is also a given – Mrs. Pollifax on safari, in Albania (where she wasn’t supposed to be!) or watching the dance of a whirling deverish, in a rest cure in Switzerland, Italy, Turkey… I suppose that in today’s world where travel is so common, these locales are not always exotic any more… but the magic of reading about a different place in each book still exists and Mrs. Pollifax’s  innocent joy at being in a new locale is hard not to share.

In ‘A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax’ she describes herself as “too cushiony”. And that is exactly what she is. Comfortable and reliable, just like your grandma. What makes a grandmother who looks more suited to being part of the garden club run around on missions for the CIA? It turns out that even grandmothers need some excitement in their lives – that the boredom of routine and the aloneness caused by faraway, grown up children and a husband who died over 8 years ago, can be depressing and make Mrs. Pollifax wonder if life is worth living.

In such a scenario, what can Mrs. Pollifax do? She makes a trip to Washington to the CIA building and offers herself as an agent. Through a case of mistaken identity, she is hired and sent on her first assignment which you can read about in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. She surprises herself and her superiors with her inventiveness, courage and physical stamina ensuring that she is a regular on the CIA rolls.

So the prize winning geranium gardener and member of the local Save our Environment Club also adds yoga and karate (brown belt) to her repertoire. And Mrs. Pollifax becomes a very successful agent for the CIA. Of course, the bad guys who do not know her like we readers too, generally underestimate her, thinking that there is just a fluffy old lady beneath those fascinating hats (there is always a paragraph devoted to Mrs. Pollifax’a latest hat in each book!). And that is part of Mrs. Pollifax’s charm – she does not act like a professional agent but still gets the job done most efficiently.  

And so through each book, Mrs. Pollifax takes a simple case, apparently uncomplicated, and turns it into a geographical, physical and mental odyssey. As her boss, Carstairs, tells his assistant, Bishop,

“One must be philosophical about Mrs. Pollifax, Bishop. We sent her off to Bulgaria to deliver a few passports to the underground and she proceeded to arrange prison escapes and the arrest of a Bulgarian general. We sent her to Mexico City to bring back microfilmed information and she ended up in Albania.”

Extraordinary, resourceful, funny, unconventional and a very good human being, the adventures of Mrs. Pollifax are a must read for every fan of detective stories. 

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