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Posts Tagged ‘Mrs. Pollifax’

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It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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mrs pollifax series books

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.

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