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An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (Cordelia Gray, #1)
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PD James Challenge/Buddy Reads > An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James

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Susan | 10038 comments Mod
Published in 1972, this mystery features Private Detective, Cordelia Gray and is followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin

Meet Cordelia Gray: twenty-two, tough, intelligent and now sole inheritor of the Pryde Detective Agency. Her first assignment finds her hired by Sir Ronald Callender to investigate the death of his son Mark, a young Cambridge student found hanged in mysterious circumstances. Cordelia is required to delve into the hidden secrets of the Callender family and soon realizes it is not a case of suicide, and that the truth is entirely more sinister.

PD James is the bestselling author of Death Comes To Pemberley, Children of Men and The Murder Room. Her first Cordelia Gray novel An Unsuitable Job For a Woman is a brilliant work of crime fiction packed with secrets and suspense. This novel has been adapted for television twice, the second adaptation in 1997 starred Helen Baxendale as Cordelia Gray.

PD James will be our 2020 Challenge and this is an excellent introduction to her work.

Please do not post spoilers in this thread. Thank you.


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
Welcome to the first, of just two, Cordelia Grey novels. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I've started listening to this on audiobook, read by Katie Scarfe, and am enjoying it so far. I remember reading it before many years ago, so am hoping I don't remember any spoilers!


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I've just listened to a little bit more and am warming to the character of Cordelia, the young detective who suddenly finds herself working on her own. Who else is reading this one?


Roman Clodia | 814 comments I just finished this last night. I like James' writing which is rich and 'literary' - but didn't think the plot held up under even the barest scrutiny.

I'll comment further on the spoilers thread...


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Bicky | 332 comments I have just started and have been struck by the opening of the author's note: "A crime novelist, by virtue of his unpleasant craft...". I wonder whether in her later years she would still have used 'his'.

Coincidentally, all the three books which the group are reading are written much after the Golden Age with this being the earliest. I found it surprising that as early as 1972 cremation was already a serious option: "“Cremation every time. There’s no private insurance, you tell me? Then get it all over as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible. Take my word, that’s what the deceased would want nine times out of ten..."

The attitude towards religion is also noticeable: "The cremation service had been spoken by the priest with carefully controlled speed and with a suggestion of apology in his tone as if to assure his hearers that, although he enjoyed a special dispensation, he didn’t expect them to believe the unbelievable."

Expression of such sentiments in popular fiction, I think, would have been impossible in an earlier era.


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Rosina (rosinarowantree) | 769 comments I haven't read the book, but in the UK, cremation must have been relatively normal at that time - my mother died in 1974, and I don't remember any qualms over cremation as some new-fangled idea. The crematorium opened in 1956.


Sandy | 2797 comments Mod
I started this last night and am enjoying Cordelia and her efforts to succeed. I would have liked to meet Bernie. I'm wondering if his relationship with Dalglish will be explained. So far next year's hero has not been portrayed sympathetically.

One (minor) difference with so many GA books: the chapters are much longer. "Just one more chapter before bed" is a real commitment.


Jill (dogbotsmum) | 2067 comments My aunt died in the 50's and was cremated, and every one of the family since then have been when they died.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
Sandy wrote: "I started this last night and am enjoying Cordelia and her efforts to succeed. I would have liked to meet Bernie. I'm wondering if his relationship with Dalglish will be explained. So far next year..."

Yes, I would have liked to meet Bernie too - it feels a bit like book 2 in a series!


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
Bernie worked for Dalgliesh but was sacked, partly on Dalgliesh's say so. They do go back to it at the end of the novel, but it is just mentioned in passing at the beginning.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 365 comments my reservation has just come in at the library so I'll pick it up on Monday. It wasn't due in till 26th April so I've been lucky there!


Jan C (woeisme) | 1376 comments I read this years ago - probably when it came out. Actually read both this and Skull when they came out. I think I thought they were okay. And, I guess, this one was good enough to get me to get the next one.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I’m enjoying this so far. For anyone seeking a print copy, I’ve noticed there is a Penguin omnibus including the sequel and another standalone title, Innocent Blood - secondhand copies are around £3 including postage.


message 15: by Susan in NC (last edited Apr 12, 2019 06:09PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2890 comments Jan C wrote: "I read this years ago - probably when it came out. Actually read both this and Skull when they came out. I think I thought they were okay. And, I guess, this one was good enough to get me to get th..."

I think I felt the same, but I’m glad I reread this one (actually, listened to the audiobook), to reacquaint myself with Cordelia. I loved all the Dalgliesh books and read them all years ago, and watched the dramatizations on PBS, but don’t remember much plot-wise, so I look forward to next year’s challenge. I only remembered the style of both James’ series was literary, and the mood, somewhat melancholy and bleak.

I still feel that way - I liked Cordelia and felt for her as a young woman trying to succeed in an “unsuitable job”, but the underlying mood, starting with Bernie’s death and carrying through the investigation and Cordelia’s internal musings on her own life, was rather sad and mournful.


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
Yes, two sad and, rather mournful, buddy reads this month - if we include the Upson.


Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2890 comments I would include the Upson - but that’s a more furtive (because of all the family secrets) bleakness, I thought. Yes, people spill to Archie and to some extent Josephine, but that’s because Archie is one of them , and impresses on them it’s a murder investigation and time for secrecy to end, and Josephine is a handy ear who actually listens to Loveday, and Morwenna and Morveth talk to her, I think, because she’s with Archie, and they’re emotionally exhausted at the time.


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Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2890 comments Quick question for British readers - I read a critical review of this book, where the reader said basically James, in her late 50s when this was published, wrote like the characters were from the 1940-50s, and as if she had no connection with actual young people living in Britain in the 1970s, at publishing time. Being an American, I haven’t a clue, but wondered what some of you thought.


Roman Clodia | 814 comments Well I wasn't born when the book is set but even so, I'd agree that they just don't act or speak like students - and even Cordelia doesn't stack up as someone who left school at 16, went straight into rather menial work, and is self-educated.

Small examples that jarred with me were people saying Mark was their 'lover', or that they were his 'mistress': they're 20, single, surely boyfriend/girlfriend is what they'd say?

I also sniggered at the Cambridge student party Cordelia goes to: no music, no drunkenness, everyone stands around chatting politely...

Everyone is so quick to quote and recognise bits of poetry, and I didn't believe for a second that Cordelia could take one look at a Renoir and recognise it instantly as an original.

It just all sounded like James' own more rarefied intellectualism being put into the mouths of 20 year olds.

An older reading friend of mine who was at Cambridge in the 70s had similar reservations. I'd be interested in what other Brits think.


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Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2890 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Well I wasn't born when the book is set but even so, I'd agree that they just don't act or speak like students - and even Cordelia doesn't stack up as someone who left school at 16, went straight i..."

Thank you! I was at university in the Midwest in the late 1980s, and I was thinking to myself, “wow, these kids must all be upper-class Brits, with the “lover” and poetry spouting and standing around discussing politics at parties, we must have been real hayseeds...”

I always got the impression from even the Dalgliesh books that everyone was terribly sophisticated, upper crust and with a stiff British upper lip you could cut yourself on! I’ll be interested to see how Dalgliesh comes across on rereading - especially his writing poetry and being so sensitive- the most recent British police procedural show I’ve watched in the last several years has been Luther with Idris Elba, definitely a different police image!


Roman Clodia | 814 comments Haha, it's certainly hard to imagine this book against a soundtrack of 70s music: David Bowie, Diana Ross, Abba, glam-rock, Elton John, disco... that student party was more like a bit of gentle Bach in the background ;)

Luther is cool!


Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2890 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Haha, it's certainly hard to imagine this book against a soundtrack of 70s music: David Bowie, Diana Ross, Abba, glam-rock, Elton John, disco... that student party was more like a bit of gentle Bac..."

Yes, he is - I think he could be James Bond!


message 23: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Everyone is so quick to quote and recognise bits of poetry, and I didn't believe for a second that Cordelia could take one look at a Renoir and recognise it instantly as an original. ..."

This has reminded me of a question about which I have wondered for a long time.

Can real people actually know a quotation so well that not only can Cordelia tell who the writer is but also that it is from a particular work? I am referring to Blake and 'The Mariage of Heaven and Hell'.

Granted Cordelia is young with a fresh and retentive memory and she buys a volume of Keats and travels with a Hardy but still...And it is not as if there is any reference to Blake being her favourite writer.


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Rosina (rosinarowantree) | 769 comments Bicky wrote: "Can real people actually know a quotation so well that not only can Cordelia tell who the writer is but also that it is from a particular work? I am referring to Blake and 'The Mariage of Heaven and Hell'."

I can identify a line of poetry, its writer and indeed the poem it is from if I know the poem concerned. Which isn't that great a number, of course. The same goes for a few Shakespearean quotations, and (in the same vein) lines from films, other plays, and episodes of sitcoms. If you happen to throw a line at me from one of the poems we did for O-level in the 1960s, I might surprise you by the speed of my response.

But you could definitely throw me on the next one you chose. Some people have much better memories than mine (though mine's still good - I can remember whole poems I learnt as a child), but I find it not very credible that unless their specialist subject is a particular author or group of authors they could reliably recognise and cap random quotes from a wide range of poets or writers. And only very well trained people can surely identify an unknown painting's artist, and even they get it wrong.

I have to confess to not having read the current book. On those occasions over the last 40 years when I've tried P D James, I've always felt they were - I think the word is pretentious and heavy going.

As a side point, I joined the Home Office a couple of years after she did, at a much lower level, but did end up working for one her friends, and going to a couple of committee meetings with her.


Jan C (woeisme) | 1376 comments I was at a state university in the West in the early '70s and then at a small college in the South in the mid to late '70s. I remember a lot of politics and I suppose some quoting. There were some rich kids at the second school - some of them had relatives providing monetary support for as long as they were in school, and only while they were in school. And there was still a draft and deferment only lasted while they were in school. Plus, Nixon had just resigned from office rather than facing the inevitable impeachment trial.


message 26: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Rosina wrote: "If you happen to throw a line at me from one of the poems we did for O-level in the 1960s, I might surprise you by the speed of my response...."

In my case that would be 'The woods are lovely, dark and deep...'


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Rosina (rosinarowantree) | 769 comments Bicky wrote: "Rosina wrote: "If you happen to throw a line at me from one of the poems we did for O-level in the 1960s, I might surprise you by the speed of my response...."

In my case that would be 'The woods ..."


"An aged thrush, frail gaunt and small, in blast beruffled plume, has chosen thus to fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

I found it useful to learn whole poems that I could then mine for answers. Only yesterday, I found myself muttering 'Thus spake the Ancient Briton, from his tumulus treed with pine'.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I was also surprised by Cordelia instantly recognising the line from Blake, but I think she is supposed to be very unusual, and as others have said she does spend her time reading classics.

I haven't read much Blake and would not have recognised the line, but am now curious about The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

As the book was only published in 1972 and I'm guessing may well have taken a couple of years to write, I wouldn't expect a strong 70s flavour, but so far to me it doesn't really feel like the late 60s either - although I'm getting on quite slowly because I am listening to the audiobook (should soon have a paper copy arriving to read alongside it.) I'm not up to the party yet!


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
I think I found that with the Dalgliesh novels - they do read as set in an earlier time, although I don't think that bothered me.

By the way, I totally agree. Idris Elba would be a fantastic James Bond. Not that I like James Bond, but I might be tempted to watch if he was 007...


Roman Clodia | 814 comments On the poetry recognition, it's not just Cordelia who does it, it's also the secretary (whose name has already gone), and the students - so it's not a personality quirk of Cordie but something which James inserts - a touch show offy?

Also The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a long poem, with the best-known quotes coming from the proverbs of hell ('sooner murder an infant in a cradle than nurse unacted desires') - unless you've literally just read it, have a photographic memory, or are a Blake specialist teaching/writing on him... I'm very dubious about Cordie's instant recall. It's small things like this which jar me out of a book.

On fictional characters with a memory for quotations, how about Rumpole? I believe it there because he's been reading and re-reading the same anthology all his life and has a special affection for Wordsworth, whom he calls 'the old sheep of the Lake District'!


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
Lots of authors tend to throw quotes, and poetry, around. Cecil Day-Lewis, in his Nigel Strangeways mysteries, does it a lot, which is, I suppose, understandable. Other characters often recognise, or complete quotes, which probably would not happen in real life.


Roman Clodia | 814 comments Also more realistic with older characters where memorisation and recitation was part of the school curriculum - not sure when it got abandoned? 1960s? I certainly didn't have to do it at school but have a pretty good memory for a quotation :)


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I was at school in the 70s and had to learn a lot of poetry to quote in exams, especially Shakespeare - I still know quite a lot of it now, but couldn't quote on the level of the characters here!

I was a student at Cambridge in the very late 70s/early 80s and am enjoying the descriptions of the city. The bit with the various students sitting around on the grass having an intense discussion seemed pretty convincing, though I do wonder if the group would talk quite like that to an outsider. I haven't got on to the party yet, but I remember parties with a lot of drinks and music rather than sedate conversation, as others have said!


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I wondered if PD James went to Cambridge herself, but, looking up her bio, I see that she in fact left school at 16 as Cordelia did - this is from her Wikipedia page:

James was born in Oxford, the daughter of Sidney James, a tax inspector, and educated at the British School in Ludlow and Cambridge High School for Girls. She had to leave school at the age of sixteen to work because her family did not have much money and her father did not believe in higher education for girls. She worked in a tax office for three years and later found a job as an assistant stage manager for a theatre group.

I've also seen a Guardian article which says that her mother was "confined to a mental hospital" in the 1930s - she would have been a child or a teenager then.

"Her mother's illness, she says quietly, ensured that she grew up prematurely."

So Cordelia's feelings about not going to university and being forced to grow up so quickly must be partly autobiographical.

This is the link but it does mention some storylines from some of her novels and I'm not sure if any of them are spoilers:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/200...


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
Difficult for James; especially as she was born in Oxford - a University town.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I’m impatient to get further with this - hopefully my paper copy should arrive today. Really enjoying the writing style.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I've got up to the party now and must agree it seems to be quieter and more learned and intense than the student parties I remember - although there is a lot of drink flowing!


Susan | 10038 comments Mod
There was a tutor there, as I recall, so possibly they were keen to behave themselves - until he had gone, at least? I also like her writing style, Judy.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "There was a tutor there, as I recall, so possibly they were keen to behave themselves - until he had gone, at least? I also like her writing style, Judy."

Yes, very possibly, Susan - and I've also just come across some rather less sedate behaviour at this party! Still listening to the autiobook at the moment.


Bruce On cremation,

1971 - in pop culture - the film Diamonds are Forever was released, and contained probably the most famous film cremation scene. Judging from its appearance in that film, it didn’t seem like a brand new thing.

1978. Like others have said about their relatives, my grandfather died and was cremated that year.


Bruce So far I really like Cordelia as a character more than Dalgliesh. I think it also helps that she’s a private eye rather than a police officer. My favorite detectives are generally “unofficial consulting detectives,” private eyes, former Belgian police officers, spinsters, and random people who solve crimes, rather than police officers.

She’s also a much warmer person than other detectives, although at the same time maybe naive, and I almost wonder if James was doing women a disservice in that way.


Bruce I’m not sure if James goes into it later in the 2 books, but I almost wonder if there’s more of a backstory, where Bernie meets her on a case of his that she was involved in and got her to become a private eye afterwards. He clearly was a mentor, and I can’t imagine her just showing up and saying, “hello. I’d like to apply as a private eye” without any experience. In fact, private eyes usually are in fact former cops.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
I think I like Cordelia more than Dalgliesh too, and I do wonder why James only wrote two books with her as the central character. I think she may start naive but seems to be growing up quite quickly.


Bruce Another thought I had was that James decided to make Cordelia 22 because of this story. She blends in very well with the student characters, both because of her age and because she’s not an actual police officer, where it definitely wouldn’t be allowed, except maybe undercover. In other private eye stories, I’m mainly thinking of Marlowe and Sam Spade, they don’t socialize with groups of younger female AND male characters, at least not high school or college students. Marlowe did with individual younger women in the stories, though.


Bruce Judy, I’m not sure, but I’m thinking it’s similar to how Agatha Christie had to write more Poirot than Marple stories. She also didn’t write an incredible number of books considering how many years she wrote. It would have been good if she did. Dalgliesh was elderly by the 90’s or so, whereas Cordelia wouldn’t have been old for a while longer. It could have been similar to the Sue Grafton Kinsey Milhone books.


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Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8980 comments Mod
Bruce wrote: "Judy, I’m not sure, but I’m thinking it’s similar to how Agatha Christie had to write more Poirot than Marple stories. ..."

That could well be - I expect also it was easier to have a police officer investigating the crimes. That's a good thought about the young detective finding it easier to mingle with the students (reminds me of the TV series 21 Jump Street, although I don't think that had any other similarities with PD James!)


Roman Clodia | 814 comments Judy said: " I expect also it was easier to have a police officer investigating the crimes."

Also interesting that in the first five Dalgleish books, he's been off-duty in two rather than the official detective - though he always has the aura of Scotland Yard, of course.


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