An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

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An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Jobfora woman.jpg
First edition
Author P. D. James
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Cordelia Gray No. 1
Genre Mystery novel
Publisher Faber & Faber
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 287 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-446-31517-6 (Paperback edition)
OCLC 31623136
Followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin

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[edit]

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[edit]

Young private detective Cordelia Gray walks into the office she shares with former police detective Bernie Pryde to find her partner dead. And has left everything, including his unlicensed handgun, to Cordelia. With a failing detective agency in her possession and no money, her choices are limited. Rather than go back to her former secretarial job, Cordelia decides to keep the agency in memory of Bernie. The woman, Elizabeth Leaming, works for prominent scientist Sir Ronald Callender and has come to hire her on his behalf to look into the suicide of his son, Mark.

Cordelia goes to Cambridge where the young man lived and studied at the prestigious university. She meets Mark's friends and immediately realises they all share some dark secret. They are reluctant to talk to her and attempt to convince her that Mark's suicide was just that, so that no further investigation is needed. She manages to get them to tell her where Mark was living, and she goes visit the place.

Mark Callender had left the University in spite of having decent grades and a promising future, including the prospect of a rather large 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 length of her investigation. The better she understands what kind of person the dead man had been, the more connected she feels to him, and the 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 hanging from the same hook on which Mark had been found suspended a pillow in a grotesque imitation of the corpse. However, 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 her 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 father.

Returning to the cottage late the following night, Cordelia is attacked by someone who throws her down the well and replaces the cover in an attempt to kill her. She is saved by a combination of her own courage and determination, and good luck that the owner of the cottage investigates the well 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 escaping 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 and takes her gun from her. Cordelia accuses him of the murder of his son, which he eventually admits to, sure that nothing can be proved. Miss Leaming, however, overhears him, enters the office and shoots him with Cordelia's gun while Cordelia makes no attempt to prevent it.

She confesses to Cordelia that she was Mark's mother and that she loved him in spite of not being allowed to by Sir Ronald. Lady Callender had been rich 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 in spite of his huge fortune. However, he also desperately wanted a grandson. He decided 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 where she passed as Lady Callender and the submissive Lady Callender posed as Miss Leaming. After Miss Leaming had the child, they went back to England where they pretended the child was Lady Callender's. Sir Ronald murdered Mark when he was close to discovering the truth, to prevent Sir Ronald from 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, come up with 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 is so authentic that the local police appear to believe it and the two women go free. The case is, however, 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.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Episodes in TV series[edit]

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.


  1. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8