Washington Post Book Club: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
April Post Book Club Selection
Post Book World Mystery Columnist
Thursday, April 29, 2004; 3:00 PM
"An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" is the ordeal of a female detective, Cordelia Gray, who is left with the struggle of single-handedly operating a detective agency left to her upon the death of her male partner. Is she good enough or is she pretending to "mete out justice" as well as any Sherlock Holmes? The suspense of the heroine also includes a "fight-for-survival" scene involving a bottomless well, a rotting wooden ladder and a creaky leather belt.
Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.
Book World mystery columnist Maureen Corrigan was online Thursday, April 29 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" by P.D. James.
Corrigan is also the book critic for the NPR program, "Fresh Air."
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Maureen Corrigan: Well, is it or isn't it? That's the core question posed by the title of P.D. James's classic 1977 mystery novel, "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman." Cordelia Gray is a novice private investigator who makes some whopping mistakes in her investigation of the death of Cambridge undergraduate Mark Callender. For one thing, she gets too emotionally attached to the deceased: Cordelia moves into Mark's cottage and wears his clothes and falls a little bit in love with him. Cordelia also inadvertantly causes the death of a third party by the end of her investigation and doesn't come clean when questioned by Scotland Yard's Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. But, on the other hand, she does solve the mystery surrounding Mark's death and does prove herself adept at the intellectual and physical demands of detective work.
Feminist questions of what constitutes "proper" women's work are implicitly addressed in this moody and poetic thriller. Also of concern to P.D. James is the "mystery" of family and the way the failings of parents can warp a child's life. Finally, Cordelia's solitude is what's most vivid to me about this novel: an orphan who's cut off from the concerns of her own generation, she's in line with the mystery tradition's other great solitary seekers after truth: Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe. . . and on and on.
Hello, just a quick comment about "Unsuitable Job for a Woman." P.D. James has become one of my favorite authors in the past few years, especially due to her in-depth characterization of detective Adam Dalgliesh. I became so "comfortable" with Dalgliesh that Cordelia Gray seemed quite a jolt for me; but after a few false starts of reading this book, I found it very much worth the effort - highly recommended! Thank you!
Maureen Corrigan: Yes, I agree that Cordelia is a "jolt" after Dalgliesh--although they do both prize their solitude. I love the surprise face-off with Dalgliesh at the end of "An Unsuitable Job" and I'm also glad that James resisted the temptation to have Cordelia and Dalgliesh become romantically involved. (If you read James's latest mystery published last December, you'll see that she finally gives Dalgliesh a mate. Cordelia, we assume, is still working solo.)
Chevy Chase, Md.:
Just A quick comment: Among the many things I loved about P.D. James (this was my first time reading her) I especially identified with the way she seems to have her heroine appreciate the older-style English ways of certain things, while being a completely modern, progressive, even feminist woman. This heroine is certainly not an in-your-face feminist. She is a pretty, quiet young woman, who is probably unreadable from the outiside. My own mother is English, and I recognized a certain England in the book which is defnitely of the past. Parts of it she abhors, such as the fuddy-duddiness of the two sisters at the main house of the cottage for example. But so much of the settings, the people, everything was still from the England of old. And while much of it she pokes fun of, much of it also she loves. The flowers plonked into a chipped striped mug, say (minor example.) And yet, she brings modern day England into the picture as well, for instance in the party scene at Cambridge. What a talented writer!
Maureen Corrigan: One of the things I most appreciate about James is how she gets her "message" across via mood, dramatization, description--rather than overt polemical asides. Maybe some of that understatement is classically "English." I've reread this book so many times, and, yet, it wasn't until last fall when I reached for it again that I read that party scene as a great dramatization of how very awkward life as a female investigator could be. Cordelia is alternately "hit on" or ignored at that party--indignities a Sam Spade would never have to suffer.
Glover Park, Washington, D.C.:
I read your review of An Unsuitable Job and wanted to express my admiration not only for the depth and insight you bring as a reviewer but also for the quality of your own writing. Being an excellent writer elevates your credibility as a reviewer. Now for my question: Can you expand on your thinking about the "theme of parental love" that you mention. You note that Cordelia was orphaned and you comment on the "skepticism" that her late father left her. How does that intersect in her dealings with "mark's well-connected father"? Thanks -- Spencer and Molly
Maureen Corrigan: I think Cordelia's emotional distance from her own biological parents gives her a necessary "cold eye" with which to regard Mark's father. Or, to put that in plainer English, she's not sentimental when it comes to the parent- child relationship and that lack of sentimentality saves her life. Unlike Shakespeare's Cordelia, she's not willing to sacrifice herself for the "old man"--or what he represents.
Isn't this an old book that has been re-issued once before?
Maureen Corrigan: "An Unsuitable Job for a WOman" was first published in 1977. That makes it a candidate for the first mystery featuring a woman investigator who's been shaped by the political and social currents of The Second Women's Movement. (The other contender is Marcia Muller's Edwin of the Iron Shoes--also published in 1977.)
Miriam; Woodbridge, Va.:
Thank you for not only selecting this book bit also for your in-depth review. This is one of my favorite authors of any genre and I'm so happy that you also have a deep appreciation for her. I wanted to mention that I heard a radio interview with Ms. James and she mentioned that she found it difficult to create mysteries using Cordelia Gray because she is a private investigator. James said that it is much easier to draw on real life (as she often does) and build a story around Adam Dalgleish rather than creating a private investigation and then fitting Cordelia Gray into it.
Thanks; I look forward to today's discussion.
Maureen Corrigan: I had the great pleasure of interviewing P.D. James for "Fresh Air" several years ago. She showed up at the studio in tweeds and was gracious and smart and funny--I fell down at her feet and worshipped. She also demonstrated a fantastic knowledge of the mystery genre.
I'm not surprised that James would say Cordelia was a stretch for her to write--they're of different generations and temprements. But as an earlier participant mentioned, Cordelia also demonstrates an "old-fashioned" sensibility about romantic relationships, literature, work. She's out of step with her own post-60s generation. Maybe that discordance is what helps make her such a brooding and attractive character.
Was James influenced by the old movie, "Laura", where the detective fell in love with the supposed murder victim?
Maureen Corrigan: I don't know if James has ever directly credited "Laura" as an influence for "An Unsuitable Job," but who could ever see "Laura" and not be haunted by it! The tone of the two works however are vastly different! No Waldo Lydeckers (sp) in this novel.
What other books has the author written? Are all of them mystery?
Maureen Corrigan: James has mostly stayed within the mystery genre but, among other things she's written are a futuristic/religious novel "Children of Men" (the book she says she's most proud of) and an autobiography "Time to Be in Earnest," which is fascinating on the subject of how she got started as a writer while working full time as a health administrator and caring for two young daughters. (James's husband was emotionally and mentally damaged by WWII.) James really didn't "make it" until she was in her 40s. She's now in her 80s and going strong.
Does James consider herself one of the pioneer women of mystery writing?
Maureen Corrigan: Judging by the conversation I had with James on "Fresh Air" a few years ago, I doubt that she would confer that label upon herself. She's too modest and too well read. There are many, many women writers of mystery who come before her. The Feminist Press, in fact, re-published the novels of two 19th century female mystery writers last year: Anna Katherine Green and Meta Fuller Victor (the latter is an American who published her mysteries a few years after Poe.)
Ms. Corrigan: Nice to be introduced to the new, determined--especially after her treatment at the "Golden Pheasant"--"sole proprietor of Pryde's Detective Agency." Some thoughts/questions (Your comments? Thank you) follow:
o I liked the links from Cordelia through hapless Bernie ("the bread he dropped invariably fell buttered side downward") to the "Super" (Dalgliesh) who had fired, even forgotten, him. Bernie's aphorisms ("Get to know the dead person") were always handy.
o I've always enjoyed the literary mystery writers (Innes, Crispin, et al.) with their witty dialogue and references. I found Cordelia--if not a rare beauty like Isabelle--certainly witty and attractive. Any ideas on why P.D. James only wrote two "Cordelia" novels?
o I enjoyed your observations on feminism framed within Isabelle's wild party. It would be different. Cordelia (no virgin) did seem to have a nice offer to meet a young Cambridgean ("Come and meet a friend of mine. He's been asking who you are.").
o P.D. James's interviews are always clever. Asked why she wrote mysteries: "As a child I wondered about Humpty Dumpty. Did he fall or was he pushed?" She's also said, "I'll never kill Dalgliesh. He can go when I go. We'll go together." Do you know her?
Maureen Corrigan: Yes, the Bernie - Dalgliesh relationship is another way the book addresses the theme of "failed parents," given that Dalgliesh is kind of a father figure to Bernie and he (Dalgliesh) treated Bernie so badly.
I like that James had the imaginative courage to make Cordelia okay-looking but no beauty. Most literary heroines can boast of some standout physical feature--Elizabeth Bennett's "fine eyes" in Pride and Prejudice or Jo March's beautiful hair in Little WOmen. Cordelia is presentable, but that's all. What makes her a standout is her intelligence, her wits, her lack of sentimentality (except, perhaps, where Mark Callender is concerned.)
Maureen Corrigan: I wonder what folks think about the literary value of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman? Is it just good entertainment or is it art? And why has such a philosophically inclined writer like P.D. James gravited to the mystery form.
By the way, for another "live" discussion of mysteries consider attending the Washington Post Book Club's event at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in D.C. on May 19th at 6:30. Best-selling mystery writers Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, and Stephen Hunter will be discussing their books and the genre with some of the Post's critics.
I noticed that both the "Oxford Companion to English Lit" and the "Columbia Encyclopedia" puts the publication date at 1972 for "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" which would give P.D. James even a better claim for being first with the female sleuths. I did see the copyright in the S&S paperback as 1977.
Maureen Corrigan: It's a mystery. I, too, have 1972 as the date in my reference books although 1977 is the only date listed in the Scribner reprint. I guess James would win the title on her side of the pond as the creator of the first feminist-inflected female investigator if 1972 is the correct date for publication.
Back to "Laura" vis a vis this book--I think Clifton Webb could ably fill the shoes of Sir Ronald--What a heartless, souless piece of work he was. Not just to murder his son but to disgrace him in death w/ that hideous charade of a suicide.
Maureen Corrigan: Yes, I could see Clifton Webb in the role. . . although when I think of that opening scene with Dana Andrews in "Laura" I always laugh at Webb's coy humor and mastery of the moment.
VideoHound shows a 1982 film (directed by Christopher Petit) of "Unmistakable Job for a Woman". I couldn't find it. One imagines the horror of the water well scene with the rotted rungs. Have you seen it? Are you a fan of the Roy Marsden Dalgliesch series? Thanks again.
Maureen Corrigan: I've seen some of the Cordelia Gray mysteries on PBS, but not an Unsuitable Job. I don't want to see it. It's one of those novels that plays so vividly in my mind that I would be cranky if anything in the movie version departed from my own imaginings.
What, by the way, did you think of the romance James has given to Dalgliesh in the latest installment? It struck me as a peculiarly old-fashioned love story for this century (maybe not so peculiar, given James's age), and I was wondering if anyone else had the same reaction.
Maureen Corrigan: Yes, old-fashioned is the word. The fact that Dalgliesh and his love correspond by letter! And that they finally meet for that romantic kiss at a train station!
I found the end of James's latest novel disappointing (a falling off from the sinister promise of the beginning) but also a well-earned wish fulfillment for her and her hero. Let's give the guy a little happiness after all these years of murder and the slim consolations of poetry.
I would vote for P.D.James's oeuvre as "art". I read where she had forensic crime job experience like Patricia Cornwell. How do you feel about Cornwell's writings? Also, do you suspect Elizabeth Leaming's driving accident in July a likely suicide? Thanks.
Maureen Corrigan: I used to really like Cornwell and then she seemed to me to go over a line. I felt that what I was reading in her more recent novels was mystery/pornography--the removal of a beloved character's face; the slow and lacivious torture of a woman who's then fed to gators.
Have no thoughts on Elizabeth Leaming's car accident.
I read my first P.D. James novel, The Murder Room, a few months ago, and then read Unsuitable Job on your recommendation. I agree that P.D. James is a wonderful writer. Which of her books would you recommend I read next?
Maureen Corrigan: I recommend a whole bunch. The second Cordelia Gray is great--it's called "The Skull Beneath the Skin." ALso wonderful is "A Taste for Death" and "A Certain Justice" and "Innocent Blood."
If Mark's father killed him, why did he hire Cordelia to find the killer? Did he think he was too clever to be caught?
Maureen Corrigan: Yikes! You just gave away who-dun-it!
Yes, he suffered from the Luciferian sin of pride. And he wanted to find out who wiped off that make-up from Mark's face. So, I guess he also suffered from the deadly sin of curiosity.
Some examples of the witty writing I especially enjoyed:
The furniture "looked part of a setting for a play in which the designer had somehow failed to catch the mood."
"People who feel the need to joke about my name (Cordelia) usually enquire after my sisters. It gets very boring."
"She had never thought of virginity as other than a temporary and inconvenient state.... Before Georges and Carl she had been lonely and inexperienced. Afterwards she had been lonely and a little less experienced."
"Cambridge suicides, so I've noticed, are always brilliant; I'm still waiting to read the report of an inquest where the college authorities testify that the student only just killed himself in time before they kicked him out."
Maureen Corrigan: What great quotes! And I guess, in sharing those quotes with us, you've just settled the question of is "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman" literature or mere entertainment.
Literature or Not?: I was thinking about this issue the other day, in part sparked by some comments S.J. Rozan made about the recent 'Salon' article attacking crime fiction's claims to literary merit (made while Rozan was on a panel at the Virginia Book Festival down in Charlottesville). I then happened upon an interview with Robert B. Parker, who was asked a variant of the question, and who said something to the effect that he only worried about one thing: Was it a good book or a bad book? That's a sidestep, of course, but I think it's the right kind of sidestep - because it focuses our attention on the right question. Which is not to focus on the particular "category" assigned, but, instead, to focus upon the merit of the work itself. That being said, I've gotten as much out of people like James, Parker, Lehane, Pelecanos, etc., as I did out of some of the books I read in my English PhD. program - and enjoyed the experience, in some cases at least, much more.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah, me too. I think Parker's "sidestep" of "is it a good book?" is the right question to ask given that so many mysteries edge into "high art" (The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is the much-cited example) and so many "high art" books edge into mystery territory (Oedipus Rex, again a much-cited example.) Ultimately, I have no patience for readers or writers who bash the mystery genre as a whole. Nor do I have any patience for fellow reviewers who praise a particular mystery by saying that "it transcends the genre."
Maureen Corrigan: Thanks everyone for your insights and for sharing my enthusiasm for James and this novel in particular. We didn't get to address the element of "tone" in this novel, which is admittedly an elusive element to discuss but so crucial to James's writing style and worldview. Again a reminder: if you're in the area and want to hear more literary discussions about mysteries, The Washington Post Book Club is hosting an event at the Omni Shoreham Hotel on May 19th at 6:30. Participants will be: Michael Connelly, Stephen Hunter, and D.C.'s own, George Pelecanos. I'll be joining the panel of interviewers along with some Post colleagues. Happy reading!
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