An Unsuitable Job for A Woman by P.D. James (1977)

” ‘I should have thought that the job was –‘ Cordelia finished the sentence for him. ‘An unsuitable job for a woman?’ ‘ Not at all. Entirely suitable for a woman I should have thought, requiring infinite curiosity, infinite pains and a penchant for interfering.’ ” (100)




Cambridge University, England.

I am a long-time fan of P.D. James mystery fiction (or, as she calls them, her “crime novels”) but up until this week, I have read only books within the Adam Dalgliesh series. While those are superb novels and every single one is well-worth a read, I found this novel (part of the “Cordelia Gray series,” of which there are only two books) to be refreshingly light and more energetic while still containing the signature intelligence and wit of James.  No doubt, the youthful air of the novels comes from the fact that their heroine is a young London woman running her own private investigation firm. Compared to her much more famous counterpart, Cordelia Gray has no weighty history to contend with nor any bothersome police procedures to adhere to. As a result, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, presents us with a thrilling, fast-paced novel without the density of James’ other works.

Our short-lived heroine, Cordelia Gray, was a child raised in the British foster-care system who was forced to abandon her education during her high-school years, and as a result found finding work in 1970’s London rather challenging. A temporary typing gig turns into an apprenticeship with a shady PI who, upon his untimely death, leaves the business to Cordelia to run. Tough and scrappy after years of upheaval and poverty, Cordelia may be inexperienced in her new career, but her street-smarts and work-ethic make up for some of what she has yet to learn.

“Despite its look of deceptive youth it could be a secret, uncommunicative face. Cordelia had early learnt stoicism. All her foster parents, kindly and well-meaning in their different ways, had demanded one thing of her — that she should be happy. She had quickly learned that to show unhappiness was to risk the loss of love. Compared with this early discipline of concealment, all subsequent deceits had been easy.” (21)

Her first case comes just days after she inherits the struggling detective agency: a wealthy scientist of some distinction wants to hire Cordelia to investigate the reasons behind his adult son’s suicide. Cordelia, her client reasons, will more naturally fit in as she makes inquiries among his sons colleagues and classmates at Cambridge University. Soon Cordelia finds herself taking temporary (and free) lodgings in the very cottage where Mark Callendar took his life and mixing with the students and staff at the university.

Cordelia is determined to prove herself to her client, and more importantly to herself, that despite her age, gender, and lack of formal education, she can not only investigate the circumstances of his son’s death, but also hold her own among the elite academics and wealthy residents of the town and college. Indeed Cordelia soon finds her stoicism and keen observation skills allow her to mix with her peers, while insulating herself from their often causal cruelty and their dismissiveness of her based on her lack of social and academic standing.

Readers find Cordelia in 1970’s Cambridge, a time of loosening social mores and outright questioning of all authority figures. The educational formality that had reigned in Cambridge for hundreds of years was yielding to freer ideas about sex, drugs, religion, philosophy all while the students themselves were living without the supervision of previous generations.

“Cordelia was intrigued by the overt sexuality, she had thought intellectuals breathed too rarified air to be much interested in the flesh. Obviously this was a misapprehension. … She found herself intimidated by the underlying ruthlessness and the half-understood conventions of these tribal matings.” (98)

By befriending those who had been close to Mark, at wild parties and during punting trips down the river Cam, Cordelia begins to get a sense of the quiet, bookish young man who had undergone a recent revolution in his worldviews and had begun to questioned his place among the wealthy elite. Clue by clue, Cordelia retraces Mark’s steps to find just what led to this transformation and whether or not Mark learned something during his period of discovery led — not to his suicide — but to his murder.

A short, fun read for those who love a cozy PI mystery, told by a wonderful story-teller. If only PD James had found Cordelia interesting enough to fill more books!


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