The Mrs Pollifax novels of Dorothy Gilman are so much better than they ought to be. There’s such a danger that they’d be twee. You only have to look at the crime section of an American bookshop to see the danger.
There are rack after rack of brightly jacketed crime series, each one billeted as “A [STRIKING NAME] MYSTERY”. Each one formulaicly unique, with it’s one-joke gimmick stretched out to a series of 27 mysteries with catchy titles, enthusiasm from the Washington Post, and very little between the glossy covers. There are Archaeologist detectives, Academic detectives, Hardboiled cops, Softboiled cops, Lesbian Pathologists, Gay dicks, and Cat detectives. And none of them are any better than they need to be.
So, you’d imagine that the Mrs Pollifax novels would be comfortably competent. After all – they’ve got a great central concept that needs little development. Mrs Pollifax, you see, is a granny who spies for the CIA, and, very occasionally, kills for them too.
Each book sees her summoned from her prize geraniums to undertake a purely routine courier mission that invariably goes wrong and involves her in guns, subterfuge, and hair-raising adventure against devious villains.
You can see the danger here, can’t you? Especially when I tell you that a Mrs Pollifax TV movie starred Angela Lansbury.
And yet the books are marvellous. True, they are comfort fodder – you’re spared from grisly 24-style torture scenes where Mrs Pollifax is gouged with DIY tools, or runs rampant in a mosque with a machete – but that doesn’t mean the books aren’t dark, and have a wonderful current of black comedy skipping nimbly through them.
When we first meet Mrs P, she is standing on her rooftop, among her prize geraniums, planning suicide. She’s widowed, she’s led a quiet life, her children are settled, and ahead of her is a lonely retirement of garden club gossip and decaffeinated tea. Suddenly, she has a flash of inspiration, and applies to the CIA to be a spy.
Of course, they laugh her out of the office… until a job comes up that needs an innocent courier to carry papers to a spy. A simple job that needs someone who looks absolutely unlike a spy. So Mrs P is summoned back, and sent off with a nice new hat. Naturally it all goes wrong…
And, within pages we’re hooked. I knew I adored Dorothy Gilman’s writing as soon as we got halfway through. So far, it had had it’s moments, but there was always that slight, nagging danger of it being no better than itself. Then Mrs P is discovered, captured, and she and her fellow spy are interrogated and tortured. And then, there is the most lovely scene where Mrs P is dragged into the torture chamber to face the ruthless new interrogator. The two eyeball each other, and Mrs P neatly, precisely settles, herself down in the rough chair with manacles, folds her hands, cocks her head on one side, and explains that she won’t talk, the next hour will be a waste of everyone’s time, and she’d far rather spend the time trying to sort out her interrogator’s quite obvious back trouble.
The fact that she later ends up shooting him doesn’t detract from her iron charm. She’s how Miss Marple would be if she ever put down her knitting, got off her arse and did something.
By about the sixth book (Mrs Pollifax On The China Station), there’s a formula going – always nearly too comfortable, but always redeemed by Gilman’s astute eye for character and dialogue. It’s a book of torture, death camps, betrayal and KGB double-cross, but it’s also about a holiday tour through China, with sight-seeing, romance, and poisoned raisins.
By the end, we’ve had a lot of grimness, a fair amount of horror, and Mrs P using her karate brown belt to deadly effect. We see Mrs P, broken, bandaged, and miserably alone, dragged into the office of the local head of the Chinese Secret Police at dawn. He tells her how much he admires her, how much she reminds him of his first wife (who he watched being tortured), and how he’s on to her. And she realises it’s not worth pretending to be a sweet old lady tourist any more, and the two of them settle down to have a quite remarkable, gently moving talk.
We also get to learn Mrs P’s quite remarkable maxim on life. Dorothy Parker was fired from Hollywood after telling a studio head “In all of human history, no one has ever had a happy ending.” We learn that Mrs P has her own take on these sentiments; “There are no happy endings. Only happy people.”