Reading the Detectives discussion

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (Cordelia Gray, #1)
This topic is about An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
51 views
PD James Challenge/Buddy Reads > An Unsuitable Job for a Woman - SPOILER Thread

Comments Showing 1-50 of 67 (67 new)    post a comment »
« previous 1

Susan | 9619 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 feel free to post spoilers in this thread.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments So... I still don't understand the motive for Mark's murder?

Was it that Callendar thought having an illegitimate son with a mistress and passing him off as his wife's would taint his reputation with the Establishment?

I understand that Mark thought he'd inherited from his grandfather falsely hence his passing the money to Callender - so Callender would still benefit financially.

If the murder was committed before he went to the College dinner, what was the point of the phone call?

Seemed incredible that after having no visitors for weeks, suddenly 5 people traipse off to Mark's cottage on the fatal evening... but never manage to bump into each other!

Also very messy to have 3 suicides (I'm assuming Cordelia's father killed himself, and that the accident in Italy wasn't one), plus all those different murderers crammed into one book.

And what an odd ending...


Jill (dogbotsmum) | 1945 comments Not the famous Dalgliesh, but an interesting character. Although I quite liked it, it didn't strike me as much as other books have. There are quite a few people who are likely suspects, but I didn't feel anyone fit the bill other than the actual murderer. This meant the book was then just a matter of working out the how rather than who and exactly why.
Unfortunately, this book proved a bit of a disappointment for me, as I so much wanted to like it more.


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
I did like it, but agree the plot was far fetched. As far as I understood the ending:

Mark had rejected the money his grandfather had left him, after discovering that the woman he thought was his mother, wasn't.

His father was reliant on the money and afraid that Mark would talk, giving his work bad publicity.

Therefore he killed his son as his laboratory was under threat without the legacy.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Thanks, Susan - I thought that was the plot but wasn't there talk earlier that Mark was going to give his inheritance to his father? That confused me. In any case, it seems a rather lame motive for such a cruel murder, especially of one's own son.

It seems odd, too, that everyone who works for him is so loyal, considering what a slimy character Callender is.

Still, I liked the writing enough to give James another try - maybe the Dalgleish novels will work better for me.


Jill (dogbotsmum) | 1945 comments I don't know that his staff were so loyal to him, only his lover and Lunn seemed to feature, and Hugo(?) didn't seem to think much of him when he worked for him.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Well they all publish under the lab name rather than as individual researchers which is almost unheard of so that implied to me that they were loyal and happy under his management - I suppose it could be interpreted in other ways.

You're right about Hugo - I'm just not sure how trustworthy I found him as a witness. Plus, as an undergraduate, he's pretty inexperienced.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Did anyone else think it was weird that Callender called in an investigator at all? I mean, he'd got away with it, and even if the police weren't satisfied, there was no evidence and they'd seemed to have let things drop.


message 9: by Susan in NC (last edited Apr 12, 2019 06:18PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2555 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Thanks, Susan - I thought that was the plot but wasn't there talk earlier that Mark was going to give his inheritance to his father? That confused me. In any case, it seems a rather lame motive for..."

That’s a good point, they were terribly loyal to such a slimy guy. I mean, I know Mark’s real mother confessed to Cordelia that Sir Ronald never cared for Mark, but that was a pretty rotten way to kill someone...

I hope you like the Dalgliesh novels better, too! I’m curious to reread them after so many years.


Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2555 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Well they all publish under the lab name rather than as individual researchers which is almost unheard of so that implied to me that they were loyal and happy under his management - I suppose it co..."

Thank you, good to know, I wasn’t sure how to take Hugo.


message 11: by Susan in NC (last edited Apr 12, 2019 06:22PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2555 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Did anyone else think it was weird that Callender called in an investigator at all? I mean, he'd got away with it, and even if the police weren't satisfied, there was no evidence and they'd seemed ..."

Yes! That was the one thing nagging at me at the end - was he so egotistical he wanted to tempt fate to see if he could continue getting away with it? Or did he know he had left the body a certain way (wearing ladies’ undies and lipstick- pretty sick), but it was found without makeup and in jeans, so someone had been there and he had to find out who, and what they knew?


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
It did seem strange that Mark's father would have arranged the body that way. Generally, though, I enjoyed the mystery and was willing to overlook these oddities. I enjoy the way P D James writes.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments It's interesting, isn't it, which books tip over our individual red lines? I was prepared to overlook more in this month's Upton/Tey than in this James.

For example, the 'young people' all acted far older than they were calling partners their 'lover' or describing themselves as a 'mistress': as single twenty-somethings even in the '70s wouldn't they just say boyfriend/girlfriend?

I also found Cordelia absurdly well-read for someone who was forced to leave school at 16, and who is still only 22. And able to identify a Renoir original within seconds of seeing it? Pshaw! Little background details like this grated on me.

But I'm happy to give James another try with Dalgleish...


message 14: by Jill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 1945 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "It's interesting, isn't it, which books tip over our individual red lines? I was prepared to overlook more in this month's Upton/Tey than in this James.

For example, the 'young people' all acted ..."


I felt the same as you. I was willing to overlook the Upson more than the James, when it came to plot and characters.


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
Whereas I am struggling with the Upson, so it's the other way around :)


message 16: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Susan in NC wrote: " Or did he know he had left the body a certain way (wearing ladies’ undies and lipstick- pretty sick), but it was found without makeup and in jeans, so someone had been there and he had to find out who, and what they knew? ..."

Yes, that is the ostensible reason. But it still does not make sense. Because then Cordelia would know. So, in fact he wants the whole world to know that Mark died in an auto-erotic game. He not only did not love Mark and his mother- he hated them.


message 17: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Somehow, the book was pretty boring. None of the characters really came alive - not even Cordelia.

Yes, P.D.James at times writes beautifully but I wonder whether anybody today, with some claim to seriousness, could write in such a cliched manner as James writes about Isabelle.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Haha, I'm pretty sure we could find rich but dumb beauties if we went looking for them in contemporary fiction... ;)


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
It has always struck me that James - despite her oft-quoted dislike of Christie - shared quite a lot with her. I think her books have that sense of character and place, which is quite closed. She leads you into the scene and, without spelling it out, tells you, 'these are the suspects.'


Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2555 comments Susan wrote: "It has always struck me that James - despite her oft-quoted dislike of Christie - shared quite a lot with her. I think her books have that sense of character and place, which is quite closed. She l..."

Interesting, I didn’t know she disliked Christie, I wonder why...I agree, though, in all of her books I recall that feeling, like in a Christie, where you were pretty sure, within a short time of Poirot, Marple or Dalgliesh entering the book, who the suspects were meant to be (unless Poirot pulled a surprise out of his hat, like in our last couple books!)


message 21: by Emma (new)

Emma | 53 comments I think I read this as a teenager when I was devouring crime fiction, and remember liking Cordelia a lot. The descriptions of the college students felt a bit odd to me, but as a young teen I probably just took it that these were just some weird students - like the ones who end up implausibly committing murder in episodes of Lewis, for example. I liked Dalgliesh turning up at the end, and Cordelia's reactions to him - do you think he knew what she'd done but couldn't prove it? or was just fishing?

I've never been much tempted to re-read the book, though, since I find James a rather chilly, detached writer, and I don't think that many of her characters are particularly sympathetic. Reading now, a lot of the social attitudes in her books seem weirdly dated - maybe because she was writing (mostly) about times I lived in, and yet they don't feel contemporary to those times. Whereas when reading Sayers or Allingham, they're firmly set in the past, and so one accepts the dated attitudes more readily.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Susan wrote: "James - despite her oft-quoted dislike of Christie"

How interesting! Do we know why? As others have said, I can see quite clear inheritance lines between Christie and this book - it must have been hard in the 70s (perhaps even now?) to write a classic-style whodunnit and *not* have some kind of relationship to Christie and the other GA 'Queens'. I wonder if James thought Christie's writing style was less 'literary'?


message 23: by Susan in NC (last edited Apr 15, 2019 12:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2555 comments Emma wrote: "I think I read this as a teenager when I was devouring crime fiction, and remember liking Cordelia a lot. The descriptions of the college students felt a bit odd to me, but as a young teen I probab..."

Thank you, “chilly and detached” perfectly describes the way the writing feels to me as well!

As to Dalgliesh, I really couldn’t tell if he was fishing or just curious- but I think he was genuinely sorry about Bernie- well, about the effect of Bernie’s death on Cordelia, and her finally letting her guard down enough to mourn him.


message 24: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Did anybody else feel that somehow the book picked up the moment Dalgeish entered, even though that is only in the last few pages? I think that James just found herself to be more sympathetic (because of a lack of a better term) towards him as compared to Cordelia.


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
She certainly seemed to want to set things straight, didn't she? She seemed to dislike Cordelia thinking badly of Dalgleish.


Susan in NC (susanncreader) | 2555 comments Susan wrote: "She certainly seemed to want to set things straight, didn't she? She seemed to dislike Cordelia thinking badly of Dalgleish."

Yes, that did feel like what was happening!


Sandy | 2623 comments Mod
I was disappointed in this book. I thought it started well and found Cordelia interesting in the beginning. Then soon I found I didn't care much about her, the mystery, or the four students. Mark was a bit interesting, but portrayed as too good too be true. Bernie might have been the best character, but he was dead.

I had no idea how Cordelia knew the AA in the prayer book was a blood type. And Mark's 'adopted' mother expected him to know this was her blood type. (Then, from my memory of biology, the blood types are: A, B, O and AB with + and - for each. Is A a simpler way of noting an AA? Off to ask Wiki.)


Sandy | 2623 comments Mod
Regarding what Dalglish knew, I think he was very suspicious without proof. Then, when Cordelia mentioned Bernie, Dalglish remembered the same case as Bernie related to Cordelia on how to hold the gun, so Dalglish suspicions were justified but he still had no proof. In the conversation with his boss they decided to drop any follow up as everyone was dead.


message 29: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Good points, Sandy. I also thought that the blood group is A and not AA. But did not pay any attention because I already felt that his mother was not his mother.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments On the blood groups I understood the notation to mean A mother plus A father so then Mark is supposed to realise two A parents can't produce a B son... but agree it was too random for Cordelia to jump to it immediately.


message 31: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments James specifically writes: "His mother was AA."


Sandy | 2623 comments Mod
I would never assume a couple of letters written with a person's initials were their blood group.


message 33: by Roman Clodia (last edited Apr 16, 2019 07:02AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roman Clodia | 758 comments Bicky wrote: "James specifically writes: "His mother was AA.""

Yes, you're right - and then a few pages later it's changed to just A when Cordelia checks the medical encyclopaedia. So it could be an error, or an attempt to convey Cordelia's mistake?

In any case, knowing one person's blood group is only useful if the other partner's (or presumed partner's) is also known as obviously it's the combination that's the key - so I assumed what James was getting at was that the 'false' mother had noted the impossibility of Mark being born from his A+A presumed parents. You're right, though, it doesn't really make sense the way it's written.

And, as Sandy says, it's a big leap in deduction on Cordelia's part. You'd think there would be clearer ways for Mrs Callender to get her message across to her 'son'.


message 34: by Robin (new)

Robin I am interested in the dislike for Christie, too. Initially I thought it was snobbery - PD James is likely to have considered her novels rather superior to Christie's I think. Another aspect to the dislike could have been Christie's character which I think was limited by her early experiences. PD James seems more outward looking. For example, she gave an excellent talk at a Barbara Pym conference that was quite feminist in its approach a few years ago. I think that if we consider the comments Christie makes about male female relationships she had problems with feminist ideas. I am thinking of the dreadful ideas she supported in Nemesis, where a woman's complaint about rape was discounted by the detective, and Christie.


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
Yes, she certainly disliked being compared to Christie and to be, as you say, Robin, a little snobbish about her.

I felt Dalgleish being inserted at the end was something of a mistake. However, I suppose it mean that fans of the series would buy a novel which they may other have ignored as a stand alone.


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Just going back to the plot, how did others feel about the faked pregnancy (which has become a bit of a staple of contemporary domestic 'thrillers')? I know they get rid of Nanny Pilbeam as a precaution but she meets Mrs Callender once and comments on how clumsy and heavy she is (from my memory) - surely it takes more to simulate pregnancy than a pillow up the jumper? ;))


Roman Clodia | 758 comments Susan wrote: "I felt Dalgleish being inserted at the end was something of a mistake."

I found this weird, it didn't really connect to the rest of the story - perhaps not ideal for my first meeting with Dalgleish. I wasn't sure how he knew what he did, and what he was going to do about it - nothing?


message 38: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments Once the murderer is dead, what does he do?


message 39: by Jill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 1945 comments Was it explained why Callender dressed his son as a transvestite?


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
I am not really sure we ever got to the bottom of why he was dressed as a woman, Jill. Other than to suggest it was a sex game gone wrong, rather than suicide? How awful for his real mother to discover him like that - and it seems a strange thing for his father to have set up.

Do we think the publishers suggested Dalgliesh be inserted into the book, which is why he appeared, so oddly, at the end?


Sandy | 2623 comments Mod
Did his real mother discover him? First, I thought it was the Major's lady who discovered him. Second, didn't the kids already dress him?

I got confused by the two pairs of men with female sidekicks and thought Cordelia was rescued by the mother for awhile.

Maybe introducing Dalglish at the end was setting up a relationship between them for future use if the Cordelia series had continued.


message 42: by Bicky (new)

Bicky | 332 comments The kids thought of dressing him up but when they came back the mother had already done so and typed the suicide note.


message 43: by Jill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 1945 comments I knew it was his mother who had cleaned him up and dressed him , and written the note but I wasn't sure if I had missed an explanation of the way his father had made it look like a sex game.


Tracey | 246 comments I agree that the addition of Dalgliesh at the end seemed clumsy. I would have been quite happy for the book to have finished before the inquest. I'm not sure tying up all the loose ends was really necessary.


Lesley | 384 comments Looks like I swim against the tide here. I really enjoyed this book. I liked the freshness of the young Cordelia Gray as MC, and the writing style of P.D. James to tell a story simply yet with a literary touch had great appeal.

Even though it was written in 1972, it had the flavour of a bygone era to it, and Cordelia was well suited to the Cambridge setting. She's fresh, independent, often boldly blunt, intelligent, logical, and unsentimental. She often reminded me of Morse.

I liked the way James recognised and handled the limitations of a female of the time in this profession, yet had her exceed against expectation without the need to beat the theme with a mallet as many authors do.

Adam Dalgliesh has a cameo role in the book and James had already written four of the Dalgliesh books before this one. Was Cordelia Gray intended to be a female detective off-shoot from that series? And if so, why was it another 10 years before the second book was written? I wonder if the female equivalent to Dalgliesh didn't get a good publisher/public reception?

It will be interesting to read the second Cordelia Gray book quite soon to see if there was any marked change in writing style in those 10 years.


Susan | 9619 comments Mod
Not at all, Lesley. I really enjoyed it - I love P D James writing style and, although I think the addition of Dalgleish was a little clumsy, overall I loved it. Looking forward to reading far more by her next year and happy to do the next Cordelia Grey as a buddy if anyone is up for it?


Pamela (bibliohound) | 334 comments I enjoyed it too, Lesley, and for pretty much the same reasons as you. Although I was quite young in 1972, I could certainly recognise elements of the era (those kaftans!) and it's not unknown for students to adopt a rather pretentious way of speaking, particularly when they feel a bit threatened.

I did feel the blood group note was a bit of a leap, but I felt that James added the part about dressing Mark up to show just how cruel and unpleasant his father was. He really wanted Mark's reputation trashed, partly to protect his own interests and partly because he was just horrible.

I would be up to Buddy Read the next one if possible.


message 48: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8592 comments Mod
I have finally finished this now - I had to listen to it all on audio as my paper copy (also containing the sequel and another book!) is still in the post. I thought reader Katie Scarfe did a great job. I really enjoyed it too and would be up to buddy reading the sequel.

I really liked Cordelia and the student atmosphere, although I agree that some aspects feel like a slightly earlier era than the 70s.

I actually thought the appearance of Dalgliesh worked quite well after his advice to Bernie has been quoted so frequently, but I was hoping for a final twist as to why Bernie was sacked - we don't really find that out, do we?


message 49: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 8592 comments Mod
Sandy wrote: "Regarding what Dalglish knew, I think he was very suspicious without proof. Then, when Cordelia mentioned Bernie, Dalglish remembered the same case as Bernie related to Cordelia on how to hold the ..."

Thanks, Sandy, I'd missed this point about the previous case. I think Dalgliesh has it all worked out, but decides to keep quiet because all the culprits are dead.


message 50: by Jill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 1945 comments I definitely got the impression Dalglish had worked out the whole thing from the case Bernie had, had. Without proof of the true events, I suppose there was no way he could do anything else but ignore his feelings.


« previous 1
back to top