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 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 privare 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.

Plot summary[edit]

Young private detective Cordelia Gray walks into the London office she shares with former police detective Bernie Pryde to find her partner has committed suicide. Pryde has left everything, including his unlicensed handgun, to Cordelia, who opts to keep the failing agency open out of gratitude. Coming back from his funeral, she is visited by her first client, Elizabeth Leaming, assistant to prominent scientist Sir Ronald Callender, whose son Mark recently died in suspicious circumstances.

Cordelia travels to Cambridge, where Mark had left university despite decent grades and the prospect of a considerable inheritance from his maternal grandfather. She meets Mark's friends, who are reluctant to talk and attempt to convince her that Mark's death was a suicide, as the police investigation had determined.

Cordelia decides to move into the rundown cottage on the estate where Mark had taken a gardening job. As she sifts through Mark's effects, trying to get a clearer picture of his life, she 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 is determined to succeed in her first solo case. Returning to the cottage one night and finding a fake corpse hanging from the same hook on which Mark's body had been found only convinces her that foul play was involved.

She finds out that a certain Nanny Pilbeam attended Mark's cremation and goes to question her. The old woman used to be Mark's mother's nanny and tells Cordelia that she went to see Mark in his college and gave him a Book of Common Prayer his mother had wanted him to have when he turned 21. That has been left in the cottage and she discovers in it evidence that Sir Ronald Callender could not have been Mark's true father.

Returning to the cottage 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 the good luck that the cottage owner notices the well has been tampered with. Cordelia in turn lies in wait with Bernie's gun in order to ambush her would-be killer, who turns out to be Sir Ronald's laboratory assistant. He, however, 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 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, 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.

Miss Leaming confesses to Cordelia that she was Mark's true mother but was prevented from telling him by Sir Ronald. Lady Callender had been infertile and died shortly afterwards. Sir Ronald had murdered Mark when he was close to discovering the truth, so as not to lose his wife's fortune. Cordelia sympathises with Miss Leaming and the two rearrange the crime scene to look like yet another suicide. The case, however, is referred to Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, who had originally trained Bernie Pryde and then sacked him. Pryde is revenged, as Dalgliesh comes to realise, when Bernie's training allows Cordelia to withstand questioning and outwit the police over Sir Ronald's death.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Jacques Barzun, in his Catalogue of Crime, was unimpressed:

Others, however, have been generous in their praise. The Daily Mail's Peter Hitchens, for example, calls it an old favourite, and one of James's "two best". He calls Cordelia Gray "one of the most attractive women in modern fiction", and the book "a very good mystery" as well as an interesting portrayal of Britain in the early seventies. The final pages he characterises as "gripping to the last word", and James as "in the class of Dorothy Sayers... and ... close to Josephine Tey." [2]

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.

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
  2. ^ Peter Hitchens, "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman", blog post, 5 December 2013, Daily Mail.