An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James: A-

From the back cover:
Handsome Mark Callender did not die the way a well-brought-up young gentleman should. He was found hanging by his neck, a lipstick stain on his mouth and a picture of a nude girl nearby. The official verdict was suicide, but his aristocratic father suspected murder, and hired fledgling detective Cordelia Gray to investigate. As this determined young lady followed a twisting trail of guilty secrets and shameful sins, she soon reached the conclusion that the nicest people do the nastiest things—in a case that proved at every shocking turn to be An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

One of the most enjoyable things about P. D. James’ books is that she’s amazing at character snapshots, evocative yet economical, and able to reveal personality even when only discussing their physical attributes. The technique is used more with minor characters—a temporary typist, a curious neighbor—while the history of the detective herself is meted out more gradually.

Cordelia herself is a great character: sensible, resourceful, and focused while still retaining some youthful vulnerability. She cares very much about fulfilling her obligations to her client while also doing right by the victim, for whom she feels strong empathy. Various people remark throughout the book that her occupation is an unsuitable job for a woman, though there is never a moment where Cordelia herself considers this to be so. The last sentence of the blurb above, therefore, is misleading.

There were moments in the story where I thought the investigation was proceeding a little too neatly, that those questioned were persuaded to divulge their information a little too easily. The moments of suspense did not always foster the proper level of concern for the character’s fate, but that may be due in some part to Cordelia’s level-headedness. The actual facts of the case, however, were suitably clever and original, and I enjoyed the book very much over all. It’s a pity that James has only written one other novel featuring Cordelia.

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