An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P D James


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.