James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

For half a century, the legendary P. D. James has written Adam Dalgliesh mystery novels. (See my blogs on A Mind to Murder and The Private Patient.) She has won every major award for mystery writing and now, in her mid-nineties, is showing no signs of slowing down. Indeed, Baroness James of Holland Park is still “whip sharp” according to interviewer, Nick Ahad. In 1972 and 1982, James put aside her Dalgliesh series to write two Cordelia Gray mysteries: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Skull Beneath the Skin. These highly readable novels are still in print and ebook format today.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman begins with twenty-two-year-old Cordelia Gray arriving at work one morning. She discovers Bernie, her partner in the private-eye firm, locked in his office, dead from suicide. A new partner in the firm, Cordelia must now run the struggling business on her own. Her first case is to investigate why a scientist’s son committed suicide. Cornelia travels to the victim’s cottage in Cambridge and discovers that he has been murdered, a finding that puts her own life in jeopardy.

James is well known for her clever and intriguing plots. As early as 1977, critics applauded her narrative skills. The Times observed that in each of her novels, “a puzzle is put before us, with evident interest in it for its own sake, something which other writers in the genre who have ventured to extend its bounds have by no means always managed to retain” (Keating 1977).

The many unexpected plot twists in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman keep us in high suspense. Even the end of the novel contains a number of surprises. James is undoubtedly the master of such narrative tension.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, like all her mystery novels, follows the “rules of fair play." James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader.

The New York Times praised James’s “insight into character” (Callendar 1973). Indeed what is especially notable in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is James’s astute depiction of Cordelia Grey. The Times calls her “charming, practical and above all believable” (Keating 1977). Cordelia is a particular likeable character, a spunky survivor in the midst of adversity, danger, and sheer bad luck.

The idyllic Cambridge setting creates an old-world atmosphere that is charming and engaging. Mark Callendar’s Cambridge cottage becomes temporary lodgings for Cordelia. She thinks of this cottage as “a little oasis of order and beauty” in the midst of “chaos and neglect” (chap. 2). Finding order in chaos is the business of the detective novel, and one that provides a strong appeal for readers.

In their starred review, Kirkus claims that An Unsuitable Job for a Woman “upholds the best of the British tradition.” You will agree with Kirkus that the novel is “an impeccable pleasure to read.”

Callendar, Newgate. “Criminals at Large.” New York Times. April 22, 1973.

James, P. D. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. 1972. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011.

Keating, H. R. F. “Fiction: Strictly Classical Murder.” The Times. March 12, 1977.