I have a testy history with P. D. James. I’ve read a few of her more recent books (most recently her Jane Austen-as-Golden-Age mystery A Death at Pemberley, which passed through me without leaving a trace), but never been able to warm to them, even if they’re competent enough as mysteries. Mostly I can’t get past how insufferable I find her hero, Adam Dalgliesh. I guess I don’t care for thoughtful, poetic, dreamy detectives, especially when they bludgeon everyone around them with their rectitude and wisdom. (I abandoned Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series for the same reason.)
But I’ve long been curious about this novel, precisely because it doesn’t star Dalgliesh. Also, my friend Rohan Maitzen values it highly, as you can see here. So when I recently came across a lovely little British paperback edition, snug enough to fit in a pocket, I snapped it up.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is about Cordelia Gray, a young woman who inherits the Pryde Detective Agency (“We Take Pride in Our Work”) when she comes into work one morning to find the corpse of her partner and mentor, Bernie Pryde. Unlucky Bernie—“in some undramatic but positive way life had turned against him” (how double-edged that “positive”)—takes his own life after learning that he has cancer. It’s hard to know how we should take Bernie. He has been drummed out of the force, which makes him seem disreputable. He takes Cordelia under his wing, acting as a somewhat bumbling, avuncular figure to her, which makes him seem sympathetic. But whether his failures are sinister or charming, the most important aspect of his character is that he retains a place in the male-dominated world Cordelia wrestles with throughout the book.
Cordelia’s conflicted feelings about Bernie are encapsulated in her relationship to his gun. She admires the fortitude of his decision to slit his writs rather than to shoot himself, so that the gun hidden in his desk drawer might come to her rather than the police. Yet this gun—which Bernie taught Cordelia to fire, lessons deemed important enough to be presented in some of the book’s few flashbacks—causes Cordelia no end of worry. You can read the book as a woman’s quest to give the gun back to the patriarchy without being punished for having had it. In the end, the gun is no match for intelligence (hers in particular, women’s in general). And yet it comes in handy on more than one occasion, whether or not it is fired. Neither Cordelia nor the novel simply dismisses its violence, power, and, perhaps, pleasures. And yet even as I write about the triumph of intelligence over force, which at some moments in the book seems the same as the triumph of women over men, I’m not so sure. I take one of the book’s central questions to be: Is there a female justice that requires women to evade male law? And yet Cordelia and James alike value the law. Indeed, James’s own ambivalences—it is by no means clear that she is progressive in her attitudes towards politics, gender, class, or indeed any other category—are a large part of what gives the book its power.
We don’t know exactly why Bernie has had to leave the force—he tells Cordelia he was invalided out, but later on we learn that’s not the whole story—but we do know that the person responsible for firing him was his superior, none other than then-Inspector, now-Superintendant Adam Dalgliesh. You might think Bernie would be embittered to the man, but, no, he regularly offers Cordelia bits of the master’s wisdom, prompting her to wonder caustically (Cordelia is appealing for several reasons, one of which is that she’s not always nice) “whether this paragon had actually existed or whether he had sprung impeccable and omnipotent from Bernie’s brain.”
At first I enjoyed what I thought was an amusing moment of self-criticism or at least self-deprecation on James’s part here—a joke at Dalgliesh’s and thus her own expense—but soon I was disappointed to see that Dalgliesh’s wisdom, translated through Bernie’s remembered instructions and teachings, accompanies Cordelia throughout her investigation of the case that falls in her lap in the days following Pryce’s death. And in fact Dalgliesh himself makes a brief but important appearance at the end of the book in which he makes it clear that he knows both that Cordelia has perverted the workings of the law and that he is unable to do anything about it. That would seem to be a vindication of Cordelia’s methods—she doesn’t fool the great Dalgliesh but she does checkmate him—but the more important fact is that his recognition is required to validate her talent. (If he’s impressed by her, she really must be impressive.) This turn of events had me wondering about the book’s politics. Is the idea that a female detective can only work against the law? Or is it that the efforts of that detective are only meaningful in the paternalistic, all-knowing if not all-efficacious eyes of the (male) law? I would prefer the former to the latter, but then we’d need to read Dalgliesh’s presence ironically and I don’t see any indication that we’re supposed to.
It’s fitting that James’s motives here are obscure, because the case Cordelia is called on to investigate is all about motive. Mark Callender, the son of the prominent research scientist Sir Ronald Callender, has killed himself just weeks after withdrawing from college. Sir Ronald wants to know why and hires Pryce to find out, ostensibly because of Pryce’s one big success but actually because of Pryce’s many failures. But by the time Sir Ronald’s amanuensis/partner, the formidable Miss Leaming, arrives at the agency to offer him the job, Bernie has just been cremated and there’s nothing for it but to take on Cordelia, who, after all, is herself most unpromising as a detective, being only 22 years old and a woman to boot, which means that she is in Callender’s eyes quite promising. Of course Cordelia is much more competent than Bernie and she makes good headway with the case, which is genuinely suspenseful, and becomes even more interesting when its resolution moves first from “why?” to “who?” (it’s hardly surprising that the suicide is really a murder), and then to the need to disguise the truth that Cordelia has so painstakingly and dangerously revealed.
At first I found it strange and unpersuasive that Cordelia should identify so strongly with Mark. (She moves into his cottage, wears his clothes, reads his books, etc.) But later I came to see her fascination as necessary for the book to explore one of its chief preoccupations. Contrary to what the title, and indeed many of my comments so far, might suggest, gender is not the only thing James is interested in. “Job” not “woman” is the most important word in the title. In other words, this is very much a book about class. Cordelia—who has had a fascinating upbringing that the book treats with admirable lightness, just enough to make some further parallels between her and Mark (which I won’t go into here in case anyone actually plans to read this book and my discussion hasn’t yet given everything away)—has not been to university. Asked by Mark’s don which college she is at, she responds tersely, “None; I work.”
That work, the investigation of Mark’s death, takes her into the heart of Cambridge college life. The students and other young people she meets (Mark’s friends, lovers, tutors, acquaintances) are presented perhaps not quite as hippies or members of the counter-culture (remember the book is from 1972), but certainly as opposed in values and life-style both to mainstream society and, more importantly, to Cordelia. Had James made her main character older, the book’s depiction of youth culture would have been about struggle between the generations. (There’s some of that going on in the Endevour films shown on PBS last year.) More interestingly, however, she pits one kind of young person against another. (On this view, the book is about Cordelia’s struggle to claim Mark, who after all has left college, for her side, as it were.) Mark’s friends are at once seductive and irritating to Cordelia, and, it would seem, to James.
But the book’s class politics are just as complicated as its gender politics. Cordelia might have less money than many of the students she is investigating, but she has just as much if not more cultural knowledge than they do. (She knows the plots of Pinter plays, recognizes a Rubens from a distance, buys a second-hand volume of Keats on her day off.) Indeed, a surprising aspect of the book is the way it equates college life with middle-class, mass-culture vulgarity. Feeling belittled by Mark’s friends she “comforted herself with the censorious reflection that they were as bitchy as guests at a suburban cocktail party… hotbeds of snobbery, spite and sexual innuendo.” To be sure, the passage criticizes Cordelia a little here—the reflection is “censorious,” after all—but I can’t help but feel it agrees with her, and praises her besides for her self-knowledge. Mostly, her problem with college life is that people in it don’t work very hard, don’t finish what they start, don’t follow procedure. There’s a telling moment when Cordelia finishes a job in the garden Mark had left half-done, fork still in the soil, on his death, even though this means destroying evidence. The unfinished job is “unbearably irritating” to her. Cordelia’s love of order and procedure fits uneasily with the idea we might want to have—and that the book sometimes gives us—that, as a woman, she is a renegade in her society. Instead, her values align with the legal and criminal system that she can never really be a part of (at the end of the day the police have to be called in). Nor does she fit in with the academic world that you would think would share her cultural values.
James is least interesting to me when she indulges in censoriousness, even if in the guise of criticizing it. That’s when she feels fussy and joyless to me. (For whatever reason, this quality is encapsulated for me in her fatal attraction to the word “fawn” when describing clothes. No one ever wears brown, only fawn will do. This tic is everywhere in James’s work.) Instead, it’s when James stops praising Cordelia for her good opinions and lets her inhabit the strangeness of her position as one who doesn’t fit in anywhere that things get really good. For this reason, the novel’s best moment comes when Cordelia is rescued from a well in which she has become trapped and almost drowned. Her rescuer is a woman whose child had indeed drowned there years earlier. Cordelia’s gratitude is breathtakingly perfunctory: mostly she hates the woman’s sense of hysterical relief at the chance she has been given to do something she couldn’t do years before. So Cordelia repudiates her, sends her away. No solidarity, female or otherwise, there. It’s gripping stuff.
I see that James only returned once to Cordelia Gray, and that almost a decade later. I wonder why. Gray is a fascinating character, one I’d be happy to spend much more time with. Perhaps the spell of Dalgliesh (which is to say, of a certain kind of male authority, even superiority, all the stronger for appearing as it does in the guise of such a sensitive character) was simply too strong. Perhaps James’s conservatism won the day. Whatever the reason, in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman James wrote something pretty great, something smart and suspenseful and, most interestingly, something hard to pigeonhole. I’ve got the sequel, if that’s in fact what it is, on order from the library. I’ll be curious to see what light it sheds on this intriguing, worthy novel.