Study Guide

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

by P. D. James

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Private detective Cordelia Gray is on her way to work, not knowing that her boss, Bernie Pryde, had died the night before. Upon arriving at the office, Gray discovers his body and a suicide note that outlines his terminal illness. She subsequently learns she has inherited the firm, his gun, and his debts. Given Great Britain’s handgun laws, the inheritance of the gun is a tricky matter.

Elizabeth Leaming, the business manager for Gray’s first client, Sir Ronald Callendar, is waiting at the office when Gray returns from the cremation. Leaming chides her for being late, noting that it is eighteen minutes past 4 p.m., the stated return time posted on the door, and then expresses her wish to speak to Mr. Pryde. Surprised at the news of his death, Leaming then begins to taker her leave, but Gray enthusiastically sells her own skills in hopes of keeping the client. After a phone call consultation with her employer, Leaming hires Gray and asks her to come immediately to meet Sir Ronald and learn about the case.

On the train journey to Cambridge, Leaming quizzes Gray on her training. Gray learns that Leaming and Sir Ronald were referred to Pryde by a former client, whom Pryde always predicted would send them an important referral. Gray reminisces about Pryde and also thinks of her own past as she compares herself to Leaming. Gray’s mother had died when she was an infant and her father was not always able to take proper care of her. Although strongly not religious himself, he entrusted young Cordelia to the nuns; Gray, during her formative years, had lived at a convent school.

Gray is uncomfortable in the luxury and formality of the Callendar residence, but is rejuvenated when given information about the case. She is also given a photograph of Mark Callendar, Sir Ronald’s son, whose death sparked the investigation. Gray sleeps with the photo at night, with her hands “closed protectively” over the envelope. The next morning, Gray assembles her supplies, including a new notebook labeled with the case name, and begins her investigation.

Gray learns that Mark had taken his job as a gardener for Major Markland quite recently, after giving up his place at Cambridge University abruptly, in the middle of the term. In speaking with the major, his wife, and his sister, Gray learns a number of details—and opinions—about Mark, who did not disclose his parentage to his new employer, had no real experience with gardening, and had the bad manners to kill himself in his lodgings on their grounds. Armed with more details about Mark’s time at Cambridge, Gray heads off to the university to meet with his former tutor and to track down Mark’s girlfriend and other friends. Gray also speaks with...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)