There are many wonderful things about older crime novels. Without hi-tech gadgets, in-depth forensic analysis and overly sadistic killers, the writer nearly always has to rely on incredible language and story telling skills to keep the reader engaged and excited. P D James wrote the first Adam Dalgliesh novel in 1962 and her novels continuously make best selling lists over 40 years later. I really, really enjoyed An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in so many ways – sadly it is the first of only two books in the Cordelia Gray series, but I definitely will read more of James’ Dalgliesh novels in the future.
Life for Cordelia is, in my opinion, quite wonderful. She is young, described to be quite pretty, and she is a partner in a fun but unconventional private investigation agency. This is the case until her partner Bernie unexpectedly kills himself. Not a great start to the novel. After Bernie’s affairs are set in order, Cordelia receives an unexpected client. The wealthy and well-known Sir Ronald Callender’s son has recently committed suicide, and Mr Callender wishes to know why his son would choose to end his life. Without many options, Cordelia accepts the case and ends up staying in the cottage the young Mr Callender lived in before he died. Cordelia’s keen eye for detail reveals that certain things don’t add up to suicide, and she starts to suspect foul play was involved.
This is where the novel really begins to shine. Cordelia is not a trained policewoman, nor is she a specialist in any kind of medical or legal field. Her only understanding of detection came from her unpredictable mentor and partner Bernie. She is essentially a normal, everyday person who has to make do with logic and intuition. She is sharp, sassy and knows what to ask, when to ask it, and how to interpret the ways people respond to her. Her hunt for the truth surrounding the Callender suicide takes her all over Cambridge and on a wild chase that gets her noticed by the wrong person. After a nearly fatal accident, pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place in rapid succession, leading to an explosive climax that was somewhat predictable but expertly delivered all the same.
James’ stellar knowledge and use of the English language made this novel a delight to read. It is remarkably both well written and easy to understand at the same time, putting it in a well-deserved class of its own. Reading quality writing almost makes some more mainstream novels easier to handle… almost. James is a superstar in her own right and after reading An Unsuitable Job for a Woman I completely understand what the fuss is about. If all modern authors wrote half as well as this, I think the book industry would be in an incredibly different situation. There is a lot of rubbish out there. This, however, is quality literature at its finest.