Rahul Sharma

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

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Language  English
Publication date  1972
Originally published  6 November 1972
Genre  Mystery
Country  United Kingdom
3.8/5 Goodreads

Series  Cordelia Gray No. 1
Pages  287 pp
Author  P. D. James
Publisher  Faber and Faber
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Media type  Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
ISBN  0-446-31517-6 (Paperback edition)
Followed by  The Skull Beneath the Skin
Similar  P D James books, Mystery books

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is the title of a 1972 detective novel by P. D. James – and also the title of a TV series of four dramas developed from that novel.


It features Detective Cordelia Gray, the protagonist of both this title and The Skull Beneath the Skin. Cordelia inherited a detective agency and from there took on her first case.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The book has been twice adapted. The first adaptation – directed by Chris Petit – was released in UK cinemas in 1982, featuring Pippa Guard as Cordelia. It was financed and produced by Goldcrest Films/ The National Film Finance Corporation and Don Boyd Films.

A television series starring Helen Baxendale as Cordelia and Annette Crosbie as Edith Sparshott was made in 1997 and 1999, based in part upon the book.

Plot summary

Young private detective Cordelia Gray walks into the London office she shares with former police detective Bernie Pryde to find her partner dead. Pryde has left everything, including his unlicensed handgun, to Cordelia. With a failing detective agency in her possession and no money, her choices are limited, but rather than return to her former secretarial job she opts to keep the agency in memory of Bernie. Her first client is Elizabeth Leaming, an assistant to prominent scientist Sir Ronald Callender, whose son, Mark, recently died in suspicious circumstances.

Cordelia travels to Cambridge, where the young man was a university student. She meets Mark's friends and immediately suspects they all share some dark secret. They are reluctant to talk, and attempt to convince her that Mark's death was a suicide just as the police investigation had determined, and that no further investigation is needed. She manages to discover from them where Mark was living, and she visits the place.

Mark Callender had left university despite decent grades and a promising future, including the prospect of a considerable inheritance from his maternal grandfather. He had then taken a job as a gardener for another rich family near Cambridge, and was living in a small cottage on the property. Cordelia immediately falls in love with the rundown cottage, and decides to move in there herself for the duration of her investigation. As she sifts through Mark's effects, trying to get a clear picture of his life, she finds a deep sense of sympathy with him, and becomes ever more convinced that his death could not have been suicide.

Repeatedly, Mark's friends try to seduce her away from the investigation but Cordelia holds on, determined to succeed in her first solo case. She returns to the cottage one night to find a pillow, hanging from the same hook on which Mark's body had been found, in a grotesque imitation of the corpse. Cordelia refuses to be frightened away, now sure that foul play is involved. She obtains pictures of the corpse, and realises that what the photos show is something Mark could not have done to himself. With this concrete evidence of murder, Cordelia sets out to track down the murderer.

She finds out that a certain Nanny Pilbeam attended Mark's cremation and left a rather particular wreath. She investigates all the florists in Cambridge until she finds the one where it was commissioned and obtains Nanny Pilbeam's address. The old woman, who used to be Mark's mother's nanny, confides in Cordelia and tells her that she went to see Mark in his college at Cambridge and gave him a Book of Common Prayer his mother had wanted him to have when he turned 21, a prayer book that Cordelia has already noticed among Mark's books at the cottage. There was a note as well, but Cordelia guesses correctly that it was destroyed. However, she also guesses where to look in the prayer book, the order of service for St Mark's day. There, in the margin, she finds Mark's mother's initials, and the letters "A A" written side by side, and realises that this must be the mother's blood group. She succeeds in establishing that Sir Ronald Callender's blood group is A, meaning that he can't be Mark's true father.

Returning to the cottage late the following night, Cordelia is attacked by someone who throws her down a well and replaces the cover. She is saved by a combination of her own resourcefulness and her good luck that the cottage owner notices the well has been tampered with because of a misplaced coil of rope. Cordelia in turn lies in wait with her gun to ambush her would-be killer, who turns out to be Sir Ronald's laboratory assistant Lunn, when he returns to finish her off. Lunn, however, succeeds in eluding Cordelia and escapes in his van, only to get himself killed by colliding with a truck. Certain now of her case, Cordelia continues to Sir Ronald's house, where Miss Leaming lets her in, takes her gun from her, and leads her to Sir Ronald. Cordelia privately accuses him of the murder of his son, which he eventually admits to, sure that nothing can be proved against him. Miss Leaming, however, who has overheard him, enters the office and shoots him with Cordelia's gun while Cordelia makes no attempt to prevent her.

Miss Leaming confesses to Cordelia that she was Mark's mother and that she loved him but was prevented from telling him his true parentage by Sir Ronald. Lady Callender had come from a rich family and fallen in love with Sir Ronald before he was knighted for his scientific achievements. Her father, however, deeply disapproved of him and refused them any money from his huge fortune. However, he also desperately wanted a grandson. He made it known that he would give money to his daughter only if she managed to produce this grandson. Sadly, Lady Callender was infertile and sickly. Sir Ronald, however, had produced children with some of his many lovers, and when Miss Leaming became pregnant by him, the three of them left for Italy and she passed as Lady Callender while the submissive Lady Callender posed as Miss Leaming. After Miss Leaming had the child, they went home to England and pretended that Mark was Lady Callender's. Sir Ronald murdered Mark when he was close to discovering the truth, to prevent Sir Ronald's losing his wife's fortune - an act which Sir Ronald believed was more than justified by the important research being carried out with that fortune.

Cordelia sympathises with Miss Leaming and the two, in spite of not liking each other, concoct a story to protect Miss Leaming from the police. Cordelia arranges the crime scene to look like a suicide, using everything Bernie Pryde had taught her to make it appear so authentic that the local police seem satisfied and the two women go free. The case, however, is referred to Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard (the protagonist of most of P. D. James's murder mysteries), and Cordelia is called in for questioning. She admits nothing, and although Dalgliesh has worked out what must have happened, he has no evidence on which to prosecute her. The irony is that it was he who had trained Bernie Pryde when he was with the CID, and it is what Cordelia in turn had learned from Bernie that had allowed her both to solve Mark's murder, and to outwit the police over Sir Ronald's death.

Episodes in TV series

Four separate feature-length dramas were contained in the series – entitled An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – in which Cordelia Gray was portrayed by Helen Baxendale between 1997 and 2001.

  • 1. Sacrifice was first broadcast from 24 October 1997, consisting of three separate 60-minute episodes.
  • 2. A Last Embrace was first broadcast from 19 February 1998, also consisting of three separate 60-minute episodes.
  • 3. Living on Risk was first broadcast from 27 August 1999, consisting of two separate 60-minute episodes.
  • 4. Playing God was first broadcast on 16 May 2001, as one 120-minute episode.
  • References

    An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Wikipedia

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