RogerBW's Blog

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P. D. James 29 August 2018

1972 detective fiction, first of James's novels of Cordelia Gray, a private investigator. Having inherited a failing investigation business, Grey is employed to look into why a famous scientist's son abandoned his university course and killed himself.

My word this is a book to read when you're feeling a bit too cheerful. From the first moments, as Grey's senior partner and mentor commits suicide having learned he's got cancer, to the end, this book is a constant exercise in picking the post depressing option consistent with continuing the story.

'I shouldn't think your mother would approve of you staying on alone.'

'I only had a mother for the first hour of my life, so I don't have to worry about that.'

Cordelia saw at once that the remark had deeply shocked them and wondered again at the capacity of older people to be outraged by simple facts when they seemed capable of accepting any amount of perverse or shocking opinion. But their silence, heavy with censure, at least left her in peace.

This isn't really a mystery as much as literary fiction with the trappings of a mystery; the people are the important thing here, and mostly they work well (though these Cambridge students in the 1970s are rather more 1950s in manner than one might have expected, even if they are emotionally casual about playing musical beds). There's one central question of motivation which is left completely unanswered, and that did rather spoil things for me. (Jul, vs ur'f gur zheqrere, qvq Pnyyraqre uver fbzrbar gb vairfgvtngr uvf fba'f fgntrq "fhvpvqr"? Lrf, ur qvqa'g xabj jung unq unccrarq yngre, ohg ubj pbhyq ur rkcrpg na vairfgvtngbe gb svaq bhg nobhg gur bgure guvatf ohg abg gur zheqre vgfrys?)

The ending, which makes up the last quarter or so of the book, is distinctly unconventional, an experiment in form which takes the story far outside the conventions of mystery novels; as a story, it works and is rather interesting, but as a mystery story, it's superfluous. A big secret which was probably still shocking in the 1970s is both obvious and non-shocking now.

But in spite of all the problems I rather liked it. Don't regard it as a mystery to be solved, and there's an experiment here that, while it doesn't succeed in all respects, still generates distinctly interesting results. Followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin.

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