The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Book 8 of #15in2015.
I’m honestly torn about this one, because there are so many good things but the negatives are colossal.
Setup: Mrs. Polifax is an elderly widow so bored with her life of volunteering and middle class charity work that she’s on the verge of suicide, until she decides to revive her childhood dream of becoming a spy. So she slips out of her home in New Brunswick, NJ and takes a train to CIA headquarters in Langley to volunteer.
Of course, due to a mixup, an administrator actually meets her, is intrigued by her story, and just so happens to have a perfect job for her. A milk run. All she has to go is visit Mexico City as a tourist for a week, then buy a book in a particular shop (using proper code words) and bring it home. Easy, right?
Obviously, everything goes wrong and she ends up in deep shit, and just as obviously, her common sense, practicality, and basic decency helps her to save the day.
I heard about this book, which is the first of a popular series, from commenters on the io9 article about my own elderly protagonist, and I thought it would be only fair to give it a try. When I started this one, I really wanted to like it.
Yeah, some of the writing can be rough. It’s annoying that the protagonist’s thoughts are put in quotations, just like her dialog. But that’s minor stuff. The character work is terrific, and there are several lovely little grace notes in the narrative that I enjoyed very much.
Unfortunately, the book was written and is set in the early sixties, when readers might seriously see the CIA as heroic freedom fighters and the rest of the world as a little slower, a little more primitive or ridiculous. I can look past casual racism in older books (I have to do it in modern books, too) but when the supposed heroes reveal [SPOILER] that the man they saved from prison was a food scientist the Red Chinese government had kidnapped because they hoped his discoveries would help relieve famine in their country.
Character: “Can you imagine what the Chinese government could have done with him?”
Me: “Feed a bunch of starving people?”
But I guess those people don’t count, because fuck ‘em. Saving their lives would stabilize a communist government, and that’s not a price these characters are willing to pay.
Here I am fresh off a fantasy trilogy all about the seductive ideas of conquest and empire, and I just can’t go there.
So, good book, but dated in a way I just can’t abide.
Buy a copy.