NEW YORK - Dorothy Gilman - an espionage writer whose best-known heroine, Mrs. Pollifax, is very likely the only spy in literature to belong simultaneously to the CIA and the local garden club - died Feb. 2 at her home in Rye Brook, N.Y. She was 88. The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her family said.
In “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax’’ (1966), the first novel in what would be a 14-book series, Ms. Gilman introduces Emily Pollifax, a 60-ish New Jersey widow bored by the compulsory round of tea and good works.
In search of adventure, she offers her services to the CIA - who, after all, is going to peg a suburban grandmother as a Cold War secret agent? - and adventure she finds. In the course of the series, which ended in 2000 with “Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled,’’ she fetches up in Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, China, Morocco, Sicily, and elsewhere.
Clever, lucky, and naively intrepid, Mrs. Pollifax employs common sense and a little karate to rescue the kidnapped; aid the resistance (when you are a suburban lady spy, a fashionable hat is ideal for concealing forged passports); and engage in all manner of cheery deception (when doing business with a malefactor who is expecting a can of plutonium, a can of peaches makes an excellent, if short-term, substitute).
Reviewers sometimes quibbled about the improbability of the novels’ basic premise. But the books proved popular with readers: In a genre in which women had long been young and sultry, Mrs. Pollifax, with her peril and petunias, made an irresistible, early feminist heroine.
The series was the basis of two movies, the 1971 feature film “Mrs. Pollifax - Spy,’’ starring Rosalind Russell, and the 1999 television film “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax,’’ starring Angela Lansbury.
She was also the author of several nonseries novels for adults, among them “The Clairvoyant Countess’’ (1975), and novels for young people including “The Bells of Freedom’’ (1963).
The Mystery Writers of America named Ms. Gilman its 2010 Grand Master.
Dorothy Edith Gilman was born in New Brunswick, N.J. Under her married name, Dorothy Gilman Butters, she began publishing children’s books in the late 1940s.
Ms. Gilman’s marriage to Edgar A. Butters Jr. ended in divorce. She leaves two sons, Christopher and Jonathan Butters; and two grandchildren.