By Dorothy Gilman (Ballantine Books, 1983)
The Mrs. Pollifax series belongs to a subgenre of mysteries called cozies, which are the G-rated reads of the crime world. Cozies are often set in small towns and there is little graphic sex or violence. People die, but there isn’t much grief; no one close to the protagonist ever seems to die. The protagonist is usually a female amateur detective who relies on her nosy demeanor to solve the crime. There is sometimes a kitschy hook that ties the series together, be it knitting, crossword puzzles, crime-solving pets, whatever. You know a cozy from other mysteries because you’re not afraid or disturbed while you’re reading it and because the reading experience is, well, cozy.
Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station is the sixth in the Mrs. Pollifax series, a lovable cozy that centers on a grandmother in New Jersey who joins the CIA. Though as a spy in her sixties she meets with a lot of skepticism from the undercover community, she plays the part of the harmless and bumbling tourist perfectly, which makes her invaluable on her missions abroad. She remains dignified and unruffled under interrogation, and eventually becomes quite skilled at karate. She never compromises her commitment to gardening, so the neighbors never suspect a thing.
In China Station, Mrs. Pollifax must go to China and bust Mr. X, a man with sensitive information, out of an isolated labor camp. To allay suspicions, the CIA signs her on with an American tour group. There is another CIA operative in the group who will only reveal himself (or herself) to Mrs. Pollifax after she’s made contact with an intermediary. In the meantime, Mrs. Pollifax and the reader try to guess which of the six other Americans on tour is the secret operative.
The plot thickens when Mrs. Pollifax suspects that her bags have been searched and that she’s been followed on a secret nightly reconnaissance outing. This being a Cold War-era book, the Soviets are trying to get to Mr. X before the Americans do -- could they have planted an operative in the tour group as well? Mrs. Pollifax navigates this dangerous terrain with her trademark decorum and charm.
I’ll admit that in the past I’ve scoffed at some cozy conventions: titles like Murder with Plankton or plots in which the cat solves the crime. But China Station has fine writing that will satisfy those who appreciate sharp turns of phrases and descriptions. Mrs. Pollifax has the wisdom and presumption that come with age and Gilman gives the narrative voice a wry humor. True to cozy form, the tension doesn’t get too high and the characters are never in white-knuckle danger. But the plot is clever with some surprising twists, and overall, the read is delightful.