Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Actually, sir, entirely suitable

Title: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Author: P.D. James

“‘What is there to be frightened of? We shall be dealing only with men.’”

Admitted, I’m an endorphin junkie. Unless I get my fix every day or so, I get cranky and lethargic. Generally, running is sufficient to give me that happy floating feeling. But sometimes a really amazing book will do just as well. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, written by British mystery author P.D. James, was one of those books for me. I’ll be feeding off the energy it gave me for days.

I just finished An Unsuitable Job tonight. Being lazy, I usually let several weeks go by before writing up a review. But since I don’t have anywhere to be tomorrow or any particular reason for getting up early (insert frustrated and bitter grin *here*), I figured I’d write my review of An Unsuitable Job tonight, and try to capture a bit of that magic that comes immediately upon the completion of a wonderful new story. Otherwise, it'd probably fade by the morning.

The heroine of An Unsuitable Job is rather unorthodox. She’s Cordelia Gray, a 22-year-old who has inherited an ailing and debt-riddled detective agency from her partner, Bernie Pryde, who recently committed suicide. Bernie was very considerate in deciding what technique to employ in furtherance of his determination to “chuck it all” -- he slit his wrists instead of shooting himself. This way, Cordelia can take possession of his unlicensed gun without being pained by any unpleasant associations.

A survivor of foster homes and a convent school, Cordelia is used to fending for herself. She’s determined to carry on Pryde’s Detective Agency for as long as her funds will permit. Fortunately, it isn’t long before her first case arrives. Mark Callender dropped out of Cambridge University to become a gardener, and he was recently found in his cottage hanging by his neck. His father, famed scientist Sir Ronald Callender, isn’t interested in challenging the verdict that his son committed suicide. Instead, he hires Cordelia to discover why exactly Mark made the decision to plunge willing into that good night.

As expected in any mystery, there’s a lot more to Mark Callender’s suicide than facially apparent. Family secrets, love affairs, illegitimate children, sexual deviancy…Cordelia stumbles upon all sorts of twisted darkness during her investigations. The book starts rather slow, but speeds up until it literally gallops at breakneck speed trough the climax, and a lot of bodies pile up rather quickly. Explosions! Car crashes! Revenge! There’s no lack of action here. And for the climbing junkies of this blog (ket and reyn), there’s a chilling scene of a character, who was thrown into a well and left to die, scrambling their way out. The description of the tortuous process is suitably gritty and painful. It definitely had me cringing.

Still, the true reason I enjoyed An Unsuitable Job so much is because I connected with it on several personal levels. Initially, I was drawn in by the fact that much of the action takes place in Cambridge, where I studied for a summer. It was wonderful to be taken back there by James’ prose, particularly when it’s summertime and carefree frolickers are punting their way along the Cam. Many of my happiest dreams involve punting along the Cam and eating strawberries.

I also enjoyed how James shows Cordelia determinedly sticking to the task she has undertaken. Book stores and meadows beckon, but Cordelia grits her teeth and doesn’t shirk her responsibilities. She spends much of the book pestering those who knew Mark for information about him, and I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about her quite a bit in the next few weeks for inspiration. In short, Cordelia’s gutsy refusal to back down is an excellent lesson in how to “network.”

Finally, there is the slow connection that Cordelia feels herself forming with the deceased himself. In many ways, it’s Mark who supports her most throughout her troubles, and in some manner Cordelia begins to see herself as the guardian of his memory. I haven’t talked about it much on a personal level, but those of you who know how I spent the months of November and December will probably understand why I found this to be a particularly touching and intriguing theme throughout the novel.

Yes, novel. To borrow an entirely over-used cliché, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman “transcends” the mystery genre. It’s literate, thrilling, and thoughtful without being pretentious. It was my first foray into the world of P.D. James, but I can safely say that many such similar excursions can be expected in the near future.

posted by Elizabeth at 11:26 PM


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