Author: P. D. James
Published 1972 Scribner Paperback Fiction. $12
Available in print, eBook, audio
Why I Read It
Considered a classic, and written by the then Queen of Crime Fiction, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, seemed a natural fit for me. I like detective stories, especially when the lead detective is a woman. I read and love Robb’s Eve Dallas series, and, odd relationship drama aside, I enjoyed Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls. Why not read one of the authors and characters that made those two series’ possible?
Cordelia Gray has inherited a private investigation firm, but will her first case be her last?
After her partner commits suicide and leave’s Pryde’s Detective Agency in her sole possession, Cordelia Gray has been waiting for a case. She doesn’t have to wait long. She returns from her partner’s funeral to find an older woman on her doorstep, ready to offer her a case. The son of a prominent scientist has committed suicide, and the scientist, Sir Ronald Callender, would like to know why. Sir Ronald’s song, Mark Callender, suddenly and without warning dropped out of Cambridge to take on work as a gardener in a nearby manor home. He has also returned the majority of his money to his father, and refuses to take any more. Sir Ronald, needing to understand his son’s behavior, hires Cordelia and the case begins in earnest.
Cordelia’s first stop is the gardener’s cottage where Mark was found. After examining the space, she notices evidence that Mark was meticulous about his job and his surroundings. The state of the cottage, however, belies that conclusion. She, ultimately, decides that it is possible Mark did not commit suicide, but was murdered. Her suspicions are further corroborated after a visit to the local police reveals the crime scene photos, suggesting that knot in the strap used to hang Mark was unnecessarily complicated. Moreover, the investigating officer has suspicions of murder as well, but is not in a position to investigate further.
Cordelia interviews Mark’s school friends, his employers, his tutor, and even the doctor said to have treated his mother during her pregnancy. Secrets come to light, including that Mark’s mother was not Sir Ronald’s dead wife. But, most importantly, that Sir Ronald killed his own son for daring to learn the truth of his birth.
Here’s what I think
That last statement, the whys of the murder, is actually not very satisfying to me. Although I cannot, for the life of me, find any mention of Gary Webber before the murderous reveal, I truly believe Sir Ronald killed his son because he was gay. That was the biggest twist of the book for me. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, because I didn’t see the foreshadowing for it, and I still don’t see it. Nothing in Cordelia’s interactions with Mark’s friends would lead me to this conclusion.
That aside, this was not my book. It felt tightly focused, but also all over the place. I didn’t know where to look for clues, because everything was given equal importance, from the dinner with Sir Ronald to the drunken chaperone to the Renoir hanging in the living room of Isabelle’s rented home. In that sense, I suppose, the story was well-balanced. However, I also feel that some judicious editing would not have been unwelcome. One can only read so much about the beauty of the Cambridge countryside.
The characters felt flat and indistinguishable from each other. I kept mixing up the four friends numerous times. There is a meeting with the family for whom Mark works as a gardener, and I don’t remember one thing about any of them. Sir Ronald left me with no feelings whatsoever until the end, and even then it wasn’t because of anything he did or didn’t do. It was Miss Leaming who made me engage with Sir Ronald’s character.
I admit to wanting to put this book down and never pick it up again many times. It took weeks to read. Cordelia could be insufferable. She wore a dead man’s clothes, a strange dead man’s clothes, and slept in said strange dead man’s bed. What self-respecting private investigator does such a thing?
It takes forever to read and is very British in its meanderings, but that’s not a reason not to read a solid mystery. It even has a few twists.
3Q–Readable, without serious defects.
3P–Read it because the book club was reading it
Readalikes, courtesy of NoveList Plus
Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear
Hush Hush, Laura Lippman
Light of the World, James Lee Burke
Intricately plotted, strong sense of place, menacing, leisurely paced
Book talk ideas
Book discussion questions
1) Why do you believe Sir Ronald hired Cordelia, aside from his stated reason?
2) Was Lunn stupid for doing everything Sir Ronald asked of him?
3) If you could change anything about this story, what would it be and why.
4) Would you consider Cordelia a strong female character? Why or why not?
5) Did you see it coming?
6) Why did Sir Ronald kill is only child?
Clues to the Future
Cordelia Gray, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P.D. James, women investigators, British stories, mystery, crime fiction, Cambridge, dysfunctional family, scenery, intricately plotted, leisurely paced
Awards and Lists
Links to the Author, Interviews, and Reviews
Author site: https://www.randomhouse.com/features/pdjames/