I finished the first novel in the Pollifax series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. It was first published in 1966 and is not a mystery novel, but a spy-novel. That is actually the main reason for its relative fame. The main character, Emily Pollifax, is a senior citizen who decides that she should finally pursue one of her greatest dreams – to be a spy. She is a widow and has two adult children with lives of their own. Pollifax realizes her life has become tedious, boring, and dull. In fact, she has even suffered some rather self-destructive thoughts. After visiting her medical doctor and having a brief meeting with an elderly neighbor, Pollifax decides to visit Washington, D.C.
Well, what a different world 1966 must have been that Pollifax could enter the CIA in D.C. and just sort of be selected as a spy. That’s basically what happens – with a little coincidental help. Pollifax hits the public library, looks up the address to the CIA headquarters, and takes a metro-train right on over. Luckily, one of the handlers is working on a project wherein he requires an older operative for a courier-type mission.
Pollifax’s gig starts off with her heading off on a flight to Mexico City. Events transpire and the majority of the rest of the novel takes place in Albania. Now, Albania is not exactly one of the most commonly researched countries. It is my strong recommendation that readers interested in this novel brush up on Albania. A deep and exhaustive examination is not necessary, but do glance at a map and orient yourself. Remember to pay particular attention to Albania in the 1950s/1960s (Eastern Bloc timeframe). (Also, Albania has a cool flag.)
Anyway, all of this is tremendously exciting and unique. And should be full of comic relief and edge-of-one’s seat intrigue. But somehow, I found this novel really difficult to plod through. It just moves very slowly. I think it is well-written and there is plenty of unique stuff in it to keep interest – but it just moves like a snail! It took me months to force myself to read it. Yes, Pollifax is charming – she is the epitome of down-to-earth and civilized. But she is also quite annoying and aggravating, too. The main thing is that with Pollifax, you need to have a willing suspension of disbelief. She actually accomplishes some things in this book that would thoroughly lay out many 30 or 40 year old gentlemen. Do I know any elderly women who could do some of these things that Pollifax does? Oddly, yes. I also realize that many people do not.
There is a light amount of the typical American patriotism and such going on, too. It works in this novel, though, because one would expect a civilized elderly woman to hold certain views and ideas. So, in that way, Pollifax is also an authentic character. An upper class, elderly WASP in the 1960s probably has some not-so-politically correct views regarding Chinese people, Communists, Mexicans, etc. I’ve read worse….
Still, I cannot put my finger on why this novel was so tedious for me. Spy novels in Albania with eccentric elderly women (and there are also goats in this novel) should not be sluggish. So here is an odd anomaly: I found the plot and characters charming and interesting, but the pacing and the novel itself was painfully slow. I would read another Mrs. Pollifax novel – but maybe only in the dead of winter and I am out of comic books and movies to play with.