P. D. James

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

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An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 50-page guide for “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman” by P. D. James includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Evolving the Role of the Private Eye and Money as the Root of Evil.

P.D. James wrote four detective novels centered on Inspector Adam Dalgliesh before publishing An Unsuitable Job for a Woman featuring protagonist and private investigator Cordelia Gray, with the popular character Dalgliesh making a cameo appearance. The novel was published in 1972 and is set at the same time, in the city of London.

While this book is faithful to many tropes of the genre, it is notable for James’s elegant prose and detailed descriptions, as well as her interest in the inner workings of the human mind. James’s characters are complicated but their motives are simple; the storyline is complex but, once teased out, reveals a straightforward series of events.

The book reflects an intellectual curiosity about the relationships between parents and children, between nature and nurture, and the disparity that can exist between appearance and reality. Writing in the close third person, James sometimes blurs the lines between her characters’ thoughts and the narrator’s perspective, using rhetorical questions to invite the reader to consider plot as well as more esoteric themes like love, right versus wrong, and intended and unintended consequences.

P.D. James published under her initials as it was unusual for a woman to write detective fiction. The novel overtly addresses the ways women are often underestimated and shunted aside. Cordelia uses her femininity as an asset, but her mind allows her to crack the case, specifically her intellect and ability to follow logic and reason over emotion. In ironic contrast, the male characters are less able to contain their emotions. This is a story about secrets, lies, family, the fine line between criminals and those who catch them, and how “it isn’t what you suspect, it’s what you can prove that counts” (87).

Plot Summary 

The novel follows many conventions of detective fiction, beginning with a seemingly unsolvable crime, which in this case is not a crime at all. A young man, Mark Callender, committed suicide. His father, Sir Ronald Callender, wants to hire a private detective to find out why. He intends to hire Bernie Pryde, a former police officer, but instead gets Bernie’s partner Cordelia Gray, who recently became the sole proprietor of the agency after Bernie’s own suicide. Bernie left a note explaining he had been diagnosed with cancer; Mark’s suicide is less easily explained.

Though she is often met with skepticism, due to her gender and her youth, Cordelia follows the investigative protocol she learned from Bernie. She starts by visiting the cottage where Mark died. Several incongruities there arouse her curiosity, and she follows these clues and those that follow, ultimately discovering that Mark did not commit suicide: He was murdered.

Cordelia also discovers that Mark’s biological mother was Elizabeth Leaming, whom he knew as his father’s secretary/assistant. Miss Leaming conspired with Sir Ronald and his wife, Evelyn, to pretend the baby was Evelyn’s so that Evelyn’s wealthy father would not cut her out of his will. Evelyn was unable to have a child of her own and was motivated to go along with this conspiracy in hopes of finally gaining her father’s approval; Sir Ronald wanted to avoid scandal and, as he grew up poor, to obtain his wife’s inheritance.

Three days before her death, when Mark was nine months old, Evelyn asked her old nanny to secret away her prayer book and give it to Mark when he turned 21. In that prayer book she left a coded message with her blood type. When Mark found that message, he realized she was not his biological mother. Being a man of principle, he told his father he would not accept his inheritance or the lifestyle it allowed him, as it was obtained through deception. Mark left Cambridge and took a job as a gardener on an estate, moving into a rustic cottage on the grounds.

Sir Ronald was upset and angered by Mark’s actions, afraid that his secret would get out and—more importantly—that his professional reputation and the financial backing for his laboratory were in danger. Mark’s renunciation was particularly galling because Sir Ronald was born poor, as a lowly gardener on his future in-laws’ estate. Sir Ronald killed Mark and staged the scene to suggest an accidental death due to autoerotic asphyxiation. He dressed his son in women’s lingerie, applied lipstick to his mouth, and left pages from a pornographic magazine on the table. Sir Ronald used his faithful laboratory assistant, Chris Lunn, to fabricate an alibi. But to Sir Ronald’s surprise, when Mark was discovered dead, his face was cleaned of lipstick, the pornography was gone, he was dressed in his own clothes, and someone had left a suicide note. The inquest ruled Mark’s death a suicide. Sir Ronald hires Cordelia, ostensibly to discover his son’s motivation for suicide but really to find out who interceded after the murder.

Cordelia discovers that some of Mark’s college friends found his body and planned to cover up the suggestion of sexual experimentation gone wrong, but before they could do so, Miss Leaming came on the scene and did the job herself—though she did not realize Mark had been murdered by his own father. Sir Ronald has Chris Lunn follow Cordelia to keep an eye on her investigation, and Lunn tries to kill her; she escapes his plan, and he is killed fleeing her revenge. Cordelia confronts Sir Ronald, and Miss Leaming overhears their conversation; when Miss Leaming realizes Sir Ronald killed their son, she shoots him dead.

Cordelia and Miss Leaming stage Sir Ronald’s death as a suicide and concoct a story for the police. Their plan succeeds, then Cordelia is summoned by New Scotland Yard to meet with Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh, who is suspicious of her story and the circumstances of Sir Ronald’s death. Cordelia nearly breaks down under his interrogation but forces herself to adhere to the principles her mentor Bernie Pryde taught her, rules that came from the superintendent himself. Dalgliesh knows she is lying but can’t prove it, and only in the last pages of the novel does he realize his own teachings and techniques are being used against him. Dalgliesh had fired Bernie from the police many years before, and in the end Dalgliesh “find it ironic and oddly satisfying that Pryde took his revenge” (250) by training Cordelia so well that she outwits him. The novel ends with Cordelia finding a prospective client waiting outside her office door, signaling her success and setting the stage for further novels.

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Chapter 1