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:
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.