(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As the novel’s title indicates, an important theme in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman examines whether in fact a woman is suitable as a detective. Throughout the novel, many characters tell Cordelia that she is unsuitable, but the three exceptions are important. In an imaginary conversation, Cordelia’s mother (who died at her birth) assures her that the job is perfectly suitable. Mark’s history teacher suggests that women’s patience, curiosity, and desire to manage others should make them fine detectives. Most important, Dalgliesh is finally confounded by the very precepts about lying that Cordelia learned from Pryde, and he seems to acknowledge as well that Cordelia is right in condemning him for his insensitivity.

Sensitivity and emotional involvement are primary issues in this novel, and they seem to account for Cordelia’s success. Almost from her first moments in Mark’s cottage, Cordelia is doing what theory might say the detective should never do—she is becoming involved with the victim. Indeed, as she interviews Mark’s friends, she becomes involved with them as well. She feels comfortable in Mark’s cottage and admires his tidy gardening. She even wears his clothes, including the strap with which he was hanged (and which saves her life in the well). Mark was attending the university that she had hoped to attend, and in the end, she acts to protect Mark’s memory even though it means that she must violate some basic precepts of detection (such as preserving the evidence).

Throughout the novel, Cordelia responds to events emotionally as well as intellectually. Thus she spreads a blanket over Isabelle’s drunken and unconscious chaperone at a party, and she even wishes to offer help to the unpleasant wife of the senile doctor from whom she seeks information. Her effort to help Miss Leaming escape the consequences of her crime seem to rise partly from her sympathy for Miss Leaming as thwarted mother who loves the child she has been forced...

(The entire section is 814 words.)