An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Analysis

P. D. James

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman traces P. D. James’s detective Cordelia Gray in her first solo case. While investigating the death of Mark Callender, Cordelia also learns about herself and about the suitability of detective work as a job for a woman. In the tradition of detective fiction, the reader accompanies Cordelia through the major stages of her investigation as she gradually uncovers the truth.

At the novel’s opening, Cordelia learns that her partner has cut his wrists after learning that he has terminal cancer. Bernie Pryde had once served in the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) for the London Metropolitan Police, where he had studied under Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh (the central detective in many of James’s other novels). Dalgliesh had later fired Pryde, but Pryde continued to regard him as the final authority in how detection should be done, and Cordelia adopts a similar attitude toward Pryde and indirectly toward Dalgliesh as well. Throughout the novel, she reminds herself of the precepts that Pryde supposedly learned from Dalgliesh.

During her first interview with Sir Ronald Callender, Cordelia is struck by his odd detachment from his dead son, but she takes him at his word, that he accepts the police’s conclusion and merely wishes to understand why Mark committed suicide. At Mark’s cottage, however, Cordelia quickly begins to suspect that Mark was actually murdered. Nothing else could account for the peculiarities of the uneaten dinner and the coffee jug. Cordelia soon begins to identify with the dead young man. When she...

(The entire section is 648 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Many traditions in detective fiction emphasize the detective as the embodiment of traditionally masculine qualities, particularly regarding powers of reasoning and physical courage. In the British tradition, detectives such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot exemplify the rational abilities of the detective while anyone investigating murder (the commonest of all crimes in detective fiction) must be brave.

In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P. D. James seems to turn the traditions inside out by creating a detective who exemplifies some traditionally feminine qualities as well. Cordelia Gray is no intellectual slouch, but she seems to have particular powers of empathy that are traditionally associated with women. Although she makes no claim for great physical courage, when she is tested her bravery leaves nothing lacking. Beyond simply asserting that being female is no hindrance to Cordelia as a detective, James seems to imply that it gives her special advantages for success.

James has noted that Sayers had a particular influence on her, and Sayers’s most explicitly “feminist” detective novel was Gaudy Night (1935). In that work, she used a university setting to examine the roles of men and women in the intellectual world as well as in work and marriage. Indeed, in Gaudy Night, the very crime involves a series of written attacks on academic women who, the attacker says, are taking jobs away from men. In that novel, Sayers betroths her male detective Lord Peter Wimsey, to her female detective, the crime writer Harriet Vane. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, James uses the Gaudy Night model to look at similar themes. Like Sayers, James uses a university setting; like Sayers, she gives her characters some discussion of the roles of men and women in the world. Unlike Sayers, she does not intend those themes to dominate the novel, but Cordelia Gray, like Harriet Vane before her, is a portrait of female independence in a male-dominated world. Like her predecessor, Gray has neither an intention of rejecting the world of men nor a need to define herself in purely masculine terms.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Campbell, SueEllen. “The Detective Heroine and the Death of Her Hero: Dorothy Sayers to P. D. James.” Modern Fiction Studies 29 (Autumn, 1983): 497-510. Campbell compares Cordelia Gray to Sayers’s Harriet Vane in terms of their age, their independence, and the fates of their heroes. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the detective’s “lover” (Mark Callender) is dead throughout the novel.

Gidez, Richard B. P. D. James. Boston: Twayne, 1986. This useful guide contains a bibliography and chapters on all James’s fiction, including An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. After some analysis of the novel, Gidez relates the work to that of Dorothy L. Sayers and Ross MacDonald, an American crime writer.

James, P. D. Interview by Patricia Craig. The Times Literary Supplement, June 5, 1981, 641-642. James discusses her youth, her adult life, and the early influences on her writing. She also examines her character Cordelia Gray as an involved detective.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Klein’s discussion of James gives five pages to An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, placing it in the Sayers tradition and noting the intrusiveness of Cordelia’s interview with Dalgliesh at the end. Includes a bibliography of women writers of detective fiction.

Maxfield, James F. “The Unfinished Detective: The Work of P. D. James.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 28 (Summer, 1987): 211-223. In a detailed psychological reading of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Maxfield argues that Cordelia Gray’s emotional involvement in her case prevents her from being considered an exemplary feminist heroine. He points out similarities between James and Gray.