An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P D James

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This is a Cordelia Gray detective story first published in 1972 and I thought I’d seen it as a TV drama some time ago. I checked on Wikipedia and saw that there were two adaptations, one in 1982 and a series made in 1997, with Helen Baxendale as Cordelia, which is the one I remembered. For a detailed account of the plot see Wikipedia.

This is Cordelia’s first assignment on her own after the suicide of Bernie Pryde, her partner in Pryde’s Detective Agency. People assume she won’t carry on the Agency on her as, of course, “it isn’t a suitable job for a woman”.

Cordelia has other ideas and takes on an assignment from Sir Ronald Callander, a famous scientist, to investigate the death of his son, Mark who had been found hanged in suspicious circumstances. It soon becomes clear to her that this is not suicide, but something much more sinister – murder. Mark had left a “suicide note” and the quotation from Blake’s poem “Tyger tyger burning bright” in the note triggers Cordelia’s suspicion that his death was not suicide – that and the knot he had used to hang himself and the merest trace of purple-red lipstick on his upper lip.

Mark had left Cambridge University without completing his degree and taken a job as a gardener, employed by a Major Markland. He was found in the Major’s cottage by his sister. She warned Cordelia:

It is unwise to become too personally involved with another human being. When that human being is dead, it can be dangerous as well as unwise.

Cordelia ignores this warning and finds herself increasingly involved and in danger of her own life. This is a satisfying read with much detailed observation and analysis of motive, a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit. There is sufficient information about Cordelia’s earlier life to exercise my mind about her motives for being a detective and I liked the references to Dalgliesh, who had been Bernie Pryde’s boss in the police force – Cordelia keeps remembering pieces of wisdom culled from Dalgleish and quoted to her by Bernie. Dalgleish is one of my favourite detectives – I loved the TV series with Roy Marsden as Dalgleish and have also read quite a few of P D James’s Dalgleish mysteries.

6 thoughts on “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P D James”

  1. I recently read the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery, Cover Her Face, and enjoyed it so much that I immediately got the second. James is a wonderful mystery writer, and although the book I read was written in the early 60s, it didn’t seem dated at all.

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, as I’ve got it on my shelves. I like Dalgliesh too, but I’m curious about James’s other detectives. It’s nice that this one has some Dalgliesh references too.

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  3. I recently caught just a few minutes of the TV version one of James’ early Dalgliesh books and having just read and not been that impressed by the latest was glad to be reminded of how good the first books in the series are. The same is true of the Cordelia Gray books and Im glad of this reminder. I must try and find time to go back and read them again.

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  4. I loved the Cordelia Gray books, or at least the three I read (are there more?). I remember the series with Helen Baxendale as well and for me she made a very good Cordelia Grey. I think the series were actually the reason why I picked up the books. But that’s all years ago, so I might just have to pick them up for a reread. Thanks for the reminder, Margaret!

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  5. I really want to read more PD James. I’ve only read one Dalgliesh, which I really liked and plan on going back to the beginning and starting from there. I also have this one on my shelves that I must read sometime soon as well.

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