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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

When one thinks of popular fictional detectives, one likely jumps right to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, perhaps Hercule Poirot, or Inspector Clouseau, or even Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys: all males. If any female character does come to mind, she would likely be Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher, both older women. However, James creates a young, female detective named Cordelia Gray—just twenty-two years old—who proves to be quite intellectually capable as well as empathetic and compassionate. In fact, her partner, an older man named Bernie Pryde, had such faith in her that he made her a partner in his practice after she'd spent just a year as his secretary, and he left the agency to Cordelia when he died. Despite several characters' insistence that running a private detective agency is an "unsuitable job for a woman," Cordelia proves them wrong with her keen eye, well-honed skills, and coolness under pressure.

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Cordelia is as physically capable as a man, shimmying all the way up a stone well and holding on to a ladder with one leather strap when someone attempts to murder her. She is as intellectually capable as a man, outsmarting both Sir Ronald Callender and the police after Sir Ronald's death. At the same time, however, Cordelia is also empathetic, coming to identify with Mark Callender, the man's whose death she's investigating, and putting that empathy to use as she considers his actions and feelings and motives. Finally, she's compassionate, reaching out to the unlikable Miss Leaming and helping to protect her as well as Mark's memory after Sir Ronald's death (despite the fact that it will lead to her own charge for possessing an unlicensed firearm). In short, Cordelia combines the qualities typically associated with men and the qualities typically associated with women to solve her case and protect those people who deserve protection. In 1972, this seems to me to be a pretty radical way to present a young woman.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

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 talks to the Cambridge police, Cordelia discovers that they too considered the suicide odd, mostly because of the way in which the strap that made the noose had...

(The entire section contains 1598 words.)

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