An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

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by P. D. James

Cordelia Gray inherits a detective agency when her partner, ex-police officer Bernie Pryde, commits suicide at his desk after learning he has cancer.

Late on the afternoon of Bernie’s funeral, Cordelia returns to the office to find her first client waiting: cool, tall, expensively dressed, white-haired Elizabeth Leaming. She is there on behalf of her employer, Sir Ronald Callendar, a well-known microbiologist.

After meeting Cordelia in person — and with reservations — Sir Ronald hires her. His 21-year-old son Mark had dropped out of Cambridge, where he was studying history, taken a job as a gardener and moved into a ramshackle cottage owned by his new employer. Eighteen days later, Mark is found dead, hanging from a hook in the sitting room ceiling. Sir Ronald wants to know why he killed himself.

From the beginning, Cordelia senses that something is off. The knot in the leather belt Mark was hanging from seems unlikely for someone committing suicide. The expertly typed suicide note and the full pot of stew on the stove also raise questions.

There’s more than what meets the eye about Sir Ronald, Elizabeth Leaming and Sir Ronald’s protege, the thug-like Chris Lunn as well. Sir Ronald’s concern about his son’s suicide is interesting given that they were never close when Mark was alive.

Directed to four students described as Mark’s friends — the siblings Hugo and Sophie Tilling. Isabelle de Lasterie and Davie Stevens — Cordelia finds that they seem to know little about Mark. Yet they clearly know more about his death than they are telling.

The more she looks at the details of Mark’s death, the more convinced Cordelia becomes that he was murdered. As Cordelia goes through the painstaking process of tracing his path through the final weeks of his life, she assembles a series of seemingly insignificant, unrelated facts. Soon, she finds herself not just being followed and watched, but in danger of being murdered herself.

James introduced Cordelia Gray in 1972, five years before author Marcia Muller introduced private investigator Sharon McCone and 10 years before authors Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky introduced their female investigators Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshaski, respectively.

Cordelia is independent, well-educated and intelligent. She has the steeliness to stand up to power, yet she has humanity. She can empathize with a bereaved mother and is flawed enough to respond to flattery, even when she realizes she’s being manipulated. Through Bernie, she is an heir to the iconic James’ detective Adam Dalgliesh.

Driven by character, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is much more than a recitation of protocols and procedures followed until the case is solved. Like many of the best detective fiction books, it applies its own standards of justice — an issue that not all critics liked. The writing is crisp, vivid and evocative. It leaves you hungry for more. Unfortunately for Cordelia Gray fans, there is only one more book in the series: The Skull Beneath the Skin, published in 1982.

Fortunately, there are 14 novels to be read in James’ Adam Dalgliesh series, as well as three stand-alone novels and some short stories.

The Author: P. D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James (1920 – 2014)

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, was a crime writer best known for her series of detective novels featuring police commander and poet Adam Dalgliesh.

James was born and grew up in Oxford. She was forced to leave school at 16 to go to work due to family finances and her father’s belief that higher education was unnecessary for girls. She worked in a tax office for three years and then as an assistant stage manager for a theater group.

In 1941, she married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor.  When he return from service in World War II, he was experiencing mental illness.  James became the family’s financial provider while her husband’s parents cared for her daughters, Clare and Jane. She studied hospital administration and from 1949 to 1968 worked for a hospital board in London.

She began writing in the mid-1950s.  Her first novel, Cover Her Face, which introduced the world to her renowned character Adam Dalgliesh, was published in 1962. Her husband died in 1964 and James took a civil service position in the criminal section of the Home Office.  She remained in government service until her retirement in 1979.

James was made a life peer as Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 and sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative.

During the 1980s, a number of her mysteries were adapted for television in the United Kingdom and broadcast in the United States on PBS. Twelve of her 14 Dalgliesh novels were adapted for television or film as well as An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001) and Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), The Children of Men, published in 1992, was made into a feature film, “Children of Men” (2006) directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine.

In addition to being named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1983, James was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and served as president of the Society of Authors from 1997 to 2013). She won the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and was given the 1999 Grandmaster Award by the Mystery Writers of America, in addition to many other awards, honorary fellowships and honorary doctorates.


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