I should know by now that when my friend Jacque recommends something, I am basically guaranteed to love it. This has been true for Gilmore Girls, bacon-and-egg baguettes, pasta carbonara (her famous recipe), and many, many books. (She is also partly responsible for the three semesters I spent in Oxford, and by a lovely trick of fate, she was present for all of them.)
Jacque has been urging me to pick up the Mrs. Pollifax series for years. When I recently found the first one in the used-book basement at the Harvard Book Store, I snapped it up (along with – ahem – a few others). And I am hooked.
Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is a widow living quietly in Cold War-era New Brunswick, N.J. She volunteers at the hospital, attends the Garden Club, keeps her apartment tidy – and is bored out of her mind. So, one day, on a whim, she presents herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, offering her services as an agent. Mr. Carstairs, chief of operations, sends her into Mexico on a simple courier assignment, which (of course) soon goes hilariously off track. The first book takes her to Albania, and its sequels have her flying all over the world, from Turkey to Bulgaria to Switzerland and back again.
Mrs. Pollifax is kind, compassionate, curious and quick-thinking. She harbors a fondness for both adventure and highly unusual hats (several of which play important roles in her CIA assignments). She inevitably gets caught up in far more tangled situations than she’s supposed to – usually because she’s spoken to a stranger, wandered into an unfamiliar neighborhood, or otherwise failed to follow directions. Carstairs and his assistant, Bishop, spend most of each book worrying about her, though as Bishop reminds Carstairs in The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax, they wouldn’t have it any other way:
She goes off on tangents. Operates on impulse and trusts her intuition. When she stops upsetting you, sir, it’ll be because she’s turned into a well-behaved, well-trained and completely predictable operator. You’ll sleep nights and stop swearing. And then she’ll be like all your professional agents, and of no use to you at all, will she?
It’s true: both Mrs. Pollifax’s charm and her usefulness to the CIA are largely a result of her unorthodox way of operating. And in the grand tradition of Miss Marple, her little-old-lady cover makes her an excellent spy. She always returns home having successfully completed her assignment and prevented an international incident – though, of course, she can never tell her neighbors where she’s been.
Packed with political intrigue, oddball characters and sometimes wildly improbable plots, these books are so much fun. If I ever became a spy, I’d want Mrs. Pollifax on my team.