An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. That was quite possibly the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my blogging tenure. I realized at the time that I was probably being very unfair to the book, which was ruined by an inept audiobook recording that cast Cordelia Gray as a mystery-solving Care Bear on drugs, doing its very best to suck out anything interesting or exciting about the book.
Well, I’ve now read the book for myself, in order to give it a fair assessment. And the jury is back with a surprising verdict. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is… quite good! The story revolves around Cordelia Gray, who inherits a private detective agency when her partner Bernie commits suicide. Before long, she is hired by Sir Ronald Callender, the microbiologist, to look into the suicide of his son Mark Callender. The scientist doesn’t doubt the coroner’s verdict that it was suicide, but he wishes to find out why his son committed suicide.
It’s an interesting idea for a story and of course, since it’s a mystery, it soon turns out that it wasn’t suicide at all. (It was, in fact, a natural death. Kidding!) And so Cordelia investigates Mark’s life and untimely death and comes to a not-particularly-surprising conclusion. I remember having solved the case more-or-less by instinct the first time around. The solution to this mystery just isn’t the most surprising solution in the world— but the ending is brilliant. By that, I mean that you find out whodunit surprisingly early on, with a good 50 pages to go in the story. And what happens in the remaining 50 pages is where, I think, the book’s true brilliance lies.
But it’s what comes after the denouement that really defines the book’s brilliance for me. And I can’t reveal why without spoiling the ending for people who have not read this book. I can’t even hint at the general nature of the conclusion. So if you’ll forgive me, I’ll draw a veil over my opinions on this point (although if anyone’s interested, I have written an essay-- no, seriously.).
However, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a much better book than I gave it credit for. I don’t want to talk too much about these elements (since there’s an element of spoilers in them) but P. D. James uses the form of the detective story to explore important social issues, especially revolving around feminism. At the same time, she doesn’t sacrifice her story’s merits as a detective story. Although it relies largely on long-outdated science, this actually doesn’t harm the book as much as give the murderer another point in his favour when confronted by Cordelia. The book is still quite well-plotted, and although the twist isn’t exactly surprising to the seasoned reader of detective stories, what happens afterwards is truly brilliant.