Classics,  Crime fiction

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D James

Back in September I bought three books for my PhD because I knew they were landmarks in crime fiction and I could not allow myself to start writing about female investigators without having read those classics. One of them was An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) by P.D James:


From Goodreads:

Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to self-destruction. What she discovers instead is a twisting trail of secrets and sins, and the strong scent of murder.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman introduces P. D. James’s courageous but vulnerable young detective, Cordelia Gray, in a “top-rated puzzle of peril that holds you all the way”

The very first thing that marks this book as a classic in crime fiction is its title. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman contains gender, social and class prejudices about work, space, identities and women’s intelligence and strength. The main character in the novel, Cordelia Gray, inherits her mentor’s private detective business at twenty-two and she decides to keep the agency open. As many people tell her, this is not a job suitable for her, because she is a woman, because she is young, because she needs to make a living out of detecting… and can she do it? If you are familiar with James’ work, you will know that Cordelia is capable of this, and much more, and that her looks and the social prejudices they evoke are only an advantage to her job.

What else can I say about Cordelia Gray? She has become one of my favourite female detectives. She is young, she knows it, and she lacks the experience and the looks of the typical middle-age, male detective. But she does not let this stop her at all. She works really hard and proves that young people may lack experience, but they have enthusiasm, passion and drive enough to change things. James also makes a point of making her realistic, so she includes everyday worries (what should I wear?), life-long worries, especially related to her new job as private eye, and, also, a very interesting personal history. What I loved the most about Cordelia is that she was educated all over Europe by a Marxist father who, despite his liberal politics, could not help assign his own daughter domestic and care duties, even though she sometimes acted as a spy. But Cordelia herself sees beyond this genre-biassed education and sees herself – and eventually constructs herself – as capable, able, and professional as any young man her age would be.

The case she solves, I found very interesting. Its depiction is a bridge between cozy, domestic and rural Golden Age crime scenes, and more modern and overtly violent and shocking scenes. This should not be a surprise, since P.D James is sometimes included as a late Golden Age writer because of her style and her writing, but her inclusion of drag and nudity in the crime scene shows an evolution in the genre that will end up with the overtly violent and scientific crime scenes we are used to see in the 21st century. So, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman can be both labelled classic and modern crime fiction, and I think it will appeal to fans of both styles as well. There are no visits to the morgue, no open chests, no blood, but Cordelia is allowed the mobility and freedom modern female detectives enjoy: she has a car, she drives, and she happily wanders around Cambridge looking for clues.

In conclusion, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is one of the best books I have read this year, and one great crime fiction novel. I knew I was a huge P.D James’ fan when I read her sequel to Pride and Prejudice – called Death Comes to Pemberley – exactly two years ago. Some critics say that James enjoys the genre difference and that her female investigators play with this difference, but I have found her books extremely feminist and ground-breaking in the best way. Maybe she does write stereotypically feminine women, but in the case of Cordelia, her intelligence comes partly from acknowledging this and using it to her advantage.

So, go ahead and pick up An Unsuitable Job for a Woman if you have not yet, because it is such a great, empowering and inspiring reading that you will not be able to lay the book down. I, for one, read the book in three evenings, and I wish I could have made it last a little bit longer so that I could spend another day with Cordelia Gray.



    • Elena

      I’m 99,99% positive that if you were one of the ones that enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley – one of the most polarising books I have ever read – then you’ll love An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I would love to know what you think of it if you finally read it 🙂

  • MarinaSofia

    I’m very fond of Cordelia Gray. PD James said she stopped writing about her because she didn’t like the TV adaptations based on her character (they were shown on British TV) and felt that she was being forced into a corner with future developments – Cordelia became a rather timid gray mouse, in her opinion. Now I’m really curious to know which are the other two books you bought?

    • Elena

      I had no idea about that, MarinaSofia! It’s a pity, really, because I think they could have done a great job on the adaptations. As for my other two books, I got it wrong. One is indeed about detective fiction, it is “Talking About Detective Fiction” by P.D James, but the other one is Atonement by Ian McEwan, which is also a classic, but not a crime fiction one.

  • jacquiwine

    I usually tend to read classic/vintage crime novels as opposed to contemporary ones, but I think I might like this. The background on Cordelia Gray is interesting too. Thanks for the review.

    • Elena

      Hi, Jaqui! I think you will like this. I was actually thinking of you and another reader who love cozy mysteries, but not anything like the Scarpetta series.

  • Gemma

    This sounds really interesting and I love what you have to say about Cordelia Gray – she sounds like a great character. I’m definitely adding this to my to-read list, thank you for the review 🙂

  • FictionFan

    Great review! It’s years since I read this – in fact, it’s a long time since I read any PD James, but I used to be a great fan of hers. Time to revisit some of them I think…

      • crimeworm

        Like FictionFan, it’s been many years since I’ve read all the earlier – and better – PD James books. I also remember the TV adaptation, with Helen Baxendale. I really enjoyed Cover Her Face; that was one of my favourites. I must re-read some of her older work (thank goodness I’m going to my parents’ at Christmas – a chance to dig out some old PD James/Ruth Rendell/Agatha Christie…

        • Elena

          How fantastic that you all love P.D James! I’m happy to join the club 🙂 I think that visit to your parents’ deserves a post on great crime fiction published before… 1995? I would love to see that.

    • Elena

      I think you will like it, for young people it feels like old-school, because there is no DNA or mobile phones (I couldn’t even find my way without them in a crime scene, even less solve a crime!). But, at the same time the feminist issues feel very current. Plus, it’s a classic!

    • Elena

      I hope you like it, Leah. I know you’re not a big fan of crime fiction, but this is a feminist, cozy mystery. Like nothing I’ve read before, seriously.

  • whatmeread

    Interesting that someone mentioned Death Comes to Pemberley, which is by far James’s weakest book. I have read all of James, but I have always wondered why she did so little with Cordelia Gray. I think An Unsuitable Job for a Woman was very good, but after a few books, she returned to Dalgleish.

    • Elena

      It was me who mentioned Death Comes to Pemberley, because it was the first book by James that I read and I loved it. As for the lack of more Cordelia Gray titles, I know, it’s such a pity…

      • whatmeread

        Yes, I realized both you did and one of your commenters. I was thinking of the comment, so oops! Masterpiece just did Death Comes to Pemberley, and I thought it translated well to the screen, but I thought the book had two faults: in some ways, principally characterization, it depended too much on the reader’s familiarity with Pride and Prejudice, but in other ways it rehashed the concerns of P&P too much.

      • crimeworm

        Absolutely, I particularly liked Cordelia…I’m not hugely keen on Adam Dalglish, he’s a bit reserved and somewhat mysterious – a change from more modern detectives whose personal lives take up as much of the book as the mystery. Great choice for your next book, I have to say – is that the one that begins by telling us, “Eunice murdered the (whatever) family because she couldn’t read.” Or is that another? I’m sure Margot, with her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction, would know.

        • crimeworm

          Thanks Elena! That’s a great one too – although all her early work really impressed me, when I read them in the 80s. I wonder if you’ll feel they’ve dated much – look forward to your review!

  • amanda

    I’ve had this one on my list for ages (I vaguely remember watching a TV adaptation years ago), and your enthusiastic review makes me think I should push it up the queue a bit. Cordelia sounds like a great character!

    • Elena

      She is! I think this book falls prey to not being old enough to be considered a crime fiction classic, like Christie’s, but, at the same time, it feels so recent that no one pays much attention to it. Now that sadly P.D James has passed away, maybe more people will get to meet Cordelia.


    Just read a chapter in “Women Times Three” comparing the two Cordelia Gray novels. Does P D James step back and change her mind about the strong female detective and portray Cordelia like all the ‘rest’ succumbing to the patriarchy in the second novel?

    • Elena

      Three years after this review, and I still haven’t read any more Cordelia Gray novels, though I do own the second one and it is on my TBR pile somewhere. Sorry I can’t be of help, maybe Twitter will?

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