Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist (1997)
I’ve loved Mrs. P from the beginning (14 books ago!), but I didn’t realize she was married and still having adventures until I picked up Innocent Tourist. Although a little formulaic (I’ve only read the early ones), they are about the most atypical spy hero imaginable.
Picture a little old lady in New England who got tired of volunteering for local charities after her husband passed away. What does she do? She goes to the CIA and tells them she’s available to be a spy, of course. And they take her up on it! Who’d suspect a little gray-haired lady with big hats and a propensity for attracting enemy agents, terrorists, and evil-doers? She’s a veritable magnet for trouble whether assigned to it or not.
She’s kind of like Miss Marple with a passport. For Innocent Tourist, Mrs. Pollifax sits beside a man on a flight to Amsterdam who slips an assassination plan into her purse. She, along with a friend, continues onto Jordan where she becomes a target of the assassin trying to get the plan back. In the meantime, the real point of the trip – helping her pal smuggle a dead friend’s unauthorized manuscript out of the country – puts both of them and their young companions (she’s also good at collecting good guys with righteous skills) in danger from terrorists and enemy operatives.
There’s a dead body, a runaway horse, disguises, kidnapping, Bedouin camel rides in the middle of the night to save her friend, torture, a sheik (on Mrs. P’s side), CIA and European involvement, bullet wounds (Mrs. P!), skeptical police, and a surprise reunion for her friend.
Oh, and did I mention the kidnapping terrorists allow her access to a helicopter with the keys in? You know that’s not going to end well.
The cavalry charges in at the last minute to save them (like usual) from both groups of villains, but in the meantime, Mrs. P has learned to take care of herself. She uses her karate skills to disarm and disable the smarmy villain in a silk suit. The sweet little old lady isn’t so docile when her friends are kidnapped and being tortured.
A highlight of any Gilman book is the wonderfully authentic descriptions of the locales. She must actually travel to these places to get the food, smells, attire, and culture just right, and not just for the tourist trade. She knows about camels, Bedouins, backstreets, and local color. Very impressive.
Mrs. P is a national treasure, sort of like Nancy Drew with grandchildren or the UK’s Modesty Blaise without the sex. Her adventures aren’t overly convoluted, psychologically disturbing, or excessively gory. You know she and her companions are going to escape, find the answer to the mystery, and learn about the local culture before the end of the book. Although I was alarmed when I read: “She’s lost a lot of blood and flesh.” Never the way you want to hear dear old Mrs. Pollifax described.
Definitely a breath of fresh air and a great way to spend the day with an old friend. I may have to catch up on the other eleven or so books I haven’t read.