I have only read Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station once, back in 1996. I really didn't remember much about it other than feeling like there was very little story to the book. I thought maybe going into it expecting less would make it a better book. The reality matched my expectations.
The book opens with Mrs. Pollifax getting her latest assignment from Carstairs, her boss at the CIA. See, Mrs. Pollifax fills her spare time with garden club meetings, karate, and the occasional job as the most unlikely spy ever. This time around, she's heading to China. She's joining a tour group. All she has to do is break away from the tour in Xian long enough to find the barber beneath the Drum Tower and find out the precise location of a camp for political prisoners. Someone else on her tour, and Mrs. Pollifax isn't to know who until he makes contact, will use that information to free one political prisoner in particular, someone that the Russians have expressed quite a bit of interest in due to his knowledge of the China/Russia border.
Once she arrives, Mrs. Pollifax quickly realizes that her assignment will not be easy. The group is under constant surveillance by their guide, a member of the China Travel Service. And Mrs. Pollifax begins to suspect that, even if she can get the information, her partner may not be able to sneak away from the tour group to use it. Will this mission be successful?
This was the sixth book in the series, and came out in 1983. As usual, the events are shaped by the political realities of the time. There is lots of talk about the changes, or lack there of, taking place in China as a result of Mao's death. The interior, where most of the book takes place, had just recently been opened for tourists. Details like that always make these books interesting.
Unfortunately, those details also slow this book down. The first half reads more like a travelogue than a spy adventure. Even when the plot picks up in the second half, it is still bogged down by travel. The few twists are either telegraphed well in advance or so clumsily handled that they feel forced into the story from another book. The climax is over almost before it begins.
Fortunately, Mrs. Pollifax herself is still very fun to spend time with. She is her normal, charming self. The growth she's developed by this point in the series is rather obvious by how she handles some events later in the book. The rest of the cast only really starts to take shape later in the book. I had trouble keeping them all straight early in the book, and one or two never fully form as characters. The rest don't come into their own until the second half, making this a second half book in every way.
I have no proof, but I have long suspected that author Dorothy Gilman had tired of the character. True, it was only book six, but those six books were written over a 17 year period. I feel like she signed a contract for another book intending to make it the last and then couldn't come up with a decent plot, padding the first half with the travelogue. The Mrs. Pollifax's character growth and the end of the book definitely feel like a conclusion, and if the series had ended here, I think most fans would have been satisfied. Of course, since the author went on to write 8 more books about the character, maybe I am wrong.
Either way, the second half is barely enough to give Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station a recommendation for fans. But if you have yet to meet this charming, engaging character, you'll be better served by picking up one of the earlier entries in what is one of my favorite series.
All of the books in the Mrs. Pollifax series (as well as the whole of Mrs. Gilmans' works) are truly delightful. The reader will be swept away by the adventure, humor and intrigue, all the while learning about the customs and history of foreign lands. You can start with any book in the series, but if you have the chance, read them all. They are not to be missed!