Book Reviews: Mrs. Pollifax and Brother Cadfael

I tend not to read genre fiction (and by that I mean things like romance, sci fi, mystery, fantasy, etc.) but when I find a series I like I get hooked. Things like character, good writing, and drama tend to trump all other things regardless of genre. My book club introduced me to two different mystery series a few years back and now I’ve completed reading all the novels.

Here are my series reviews:

Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

A widow named Emily Pollifax grows bored with her solitary existence in suburban New Jersey and decides that she would like to join the CIA to inject some purpose and adventure in her life. Starting with a simple job as a courier, Mrs. Pollifax begings a career as the Company’s most unliklely operative.
Supporting Characters:
Carstairs — Mrs. Pollifax’s CIA supervisor who selects her for missions due to her appearing to be innocent and unthreatening. He tends to worry about her while she’s away.
Bishop — Carstairs’ assistant who generally briefs Mrs. Pollifax on her assignments.
John Sebastian Farrell — An agent who freelances for the CIA whom Mrs. Pollifax meets on her first mission, and who she adopts as a sort of surrogate son. Farrell returns in several of the latter novels working as a team with Mrs. Pollifax.
Cyrus Reed — A retired judge and widower whom Mrs. Pollifax meets on safari. They fall in love and are married.
Mrs. Pollifax is usually sent on a simple mission that goes awry. Almost always Mrs. Pollifax is captured by the bad guys and/or doublecrossed. Despite this, Mrs. Pollifax is triumphant by the end often accomplishing much more than initially expected. Her unlikely appearance as a spy along with her wit and charm often help her out. She also is good at forming friendships with the people she meets and organizing them to achieve her mission. The people she befriends tend to be ethnic characters of the country she’s in, often children. She also encounters young, troubled Americans and acts as kind of a grandmother figure/mentor to them. Much of the series is light-hearted and played more for laughs than suspense, although the novels also include more serious issues. For instance, in Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha Mrs. Pollifax suffers torture at the hands of her opponents, which continues to haunt her in future stories.
Continuing Stories:
In the early novels, the formula is generally that Mrs. Pollifax is sent on a simple courier missions which goes wrong but she uses her wits, charm, and friends to get herself out of the mess. She meets Cyrus Reed in Mrs. Pollifax on Safari and the two marry and go on jobs for the CIA together for a few novels. In later novels the formula reverts back to the original premise and Cyrus becomes a more minor character, however Mrs. Pollifax’s old friend John Sebastian Farrell becomes more prominent. There are two examples of sequels within the series. Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station/Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha are both adventures involving a Chinese dissedent. Mrs. Pollifax Pursued/Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer involve the young woman Kadi and her friend Sammy who becomes king of the fictional African nation of Ubangiba. The novels were published between 1966-2000 and tend to reflect current events at the time they were published (Cold War communism in the early novels, the Mid-East conflict and terrorism in the more recent novels). Despite the story being current Mrs. Pollifax and the other recurring characters do not age 30 years and the continuity appears to take place over a more condensed period of maybe a decade or so.
Favorite Novel:
The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax — The early novels are more fun and this one has one of my favorite scenes of Mrs. Pollifax and her colleagues actually staging a daring raid of a Communist prison in Bulgaria involving geese.
Least Favorite Novel:
Mrs. Pollifax Pursued — I must have something against carnies because I never enjoy stories set at carnivals. This novel also has far too many elements that push the boundaries of suspension of disbelief.
The End?: At the conclusion of Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled published in 2000, Mrs. Pollifax shows no sign of retiring. Dorothy Gilman although elderly is still alive and could add further insallments to this series.

The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters.

Brother Cadfael is a former crusader who took his vows at the Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury and serves as the communities herbalists. His familiarity with the ways of the world, a scientific mind developed by working with herbs and medicine, and an eye for seeing what everyone else misses helps him solve mysterious crimes.
Supporting Characters:
Hugh Beringar — the deputy sheriff and eventual sheriff of Shrewsbury. Cadfael and Beringar start off on opposite sides in an early mystery but soon they work together and frequently advise one another problems and mysteries. They also form a close friendship with Cadfael acting as godfather to Hugh’s son.
Heribert/Radulfus — The two abbots of the abbey who both are able to recognize Cadfael’s unusual talents, call upon him for advice, and keep down jealousy and gossip among the monks.
Olivier de Bretagne — Cadfael’s son from a liaison in the Near East whom Cadfael discovers in an adventure about a third of the way through the series. A brave and honorable warrior, Olivier is the spitting image of a young Cadfael and central to the final novel.
Almost all the books feature a murder, usually with the wrong man being accused and Cadfael’s sleuthing bailing him out. Since the likelihood of 20+ murders in a decade in a small medieval town are unlikely, many of the murderers and/or victims are visitors from out of town. Cadfael usually confers with Hugh and the abbot about the mysteries in long, expository (and redundant) conversations which often can be the weakness of this series. Cadfael often acts as mentor/advisor to younger men, and very frequently ends up acting as matchmaker between a brave young man and a fair young maiden (a bit hokey but fun). Relations with Wales are an ongoing theme as Shrewsbury is near the border and Cadfael is a Welshman who often acts as intermediary.
Continuing Stories:
The novels cover about a decade from 1135-1145 including a lot of historical detail and some real life characters in fictionalized form.
The relics of Saint Winefride, patroness of the abbey, transfered from Winefride’s native Wales in the first novel (or were they?). The spirit of Winefride continues throughout the series. She is credited with a miracle in The Pilgrim of Hate, her relics are stolen in The Holy Thief, and Cadfael holds a special devotion to her.
From the second novel on, the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud is central to the ongoing story and important to the plot of several mysteries.
Favorite Novel:
An Excellent Mystery — The plot twists should be obvious to the average reader, but I was left hanging to the very end. This also is the rare mystery with no murder.
Least Favorite Novel:
The Sanctuary Sparrow — Far too much of the Peters’ formula and exposition makes for a weak entry.
The End?:
The final book Brother Cadfael’s Penance makes a great finale for several running stories and specifically is a big moment where Cadfael puts his vows on the line. Edith Pargeter died in 1995 so the series is at an end.

3 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Mrs. Pollifax and Brother Cadfael

  1. I ilike the Brother Cadfael series, too. Also got the DVD’s from the library that were done by BBC, and later shown on PBS. Fun mind candy.


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