Monday, June 18, 2007

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman -- P. D. James

Welcome to my literary review page. In the months to come, I'll be posting here about the books I'm reading and trying my hand at becoming a book critic. I'll try to include a variety of authors, genres, and styles in my reading list, though I have to admit that I have a penchant for mystery novels and tend to turn to those first when I need a break from working closely with the texts I teach during the school year. As I was recently reminded by an up-and-coming filmmaker I happen to know as well as in a "rules for reviewing" list created by John Updike, I hope to "try to understand what the author wished to do, and...not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt" (originally published as Updike's forward to Picked Up Pieces). I do think, though, that the best books are those that transcend the boundaries of genre and time and can be enjoyed by any audience -- and that a truly "4 star" review should be reserved for those books only.

The book I've most recently finished reading is An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James. Ever since watching Adam Dalgleish's adventures in detecting on the fabulous PBS series Mystery!, I've been searching used book stores and the local library to try to read James' novels in chronological order. I've gotten through the first two or three Dalgleish mysteries, but I decided to pick up this one featuring a different detective for my first "It's summer break!" fluff read. For the uninitiated, P. D. James's mysteries are much more serious fiction than many other thrillers currently on the bestseller lists; though I call it "fluff," do not expect a quick page-turner or you'll be disappointed (or, perhaps, pleasantly surprised?).

In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, Cordelia Gray, a gumshoe private eye, comes to work one morning to find that her boss, Bernie Pryde, has committed suicide in his office. Calm, cool, and collected, Cordelia picks up where her unfortunate predecessor left off and takes the first case that comes across her desk: the suspicious death of a young college dropout and heir to a great fortune, Mark Callendar. Cordelia moves in to Mark's old digs and follows in his footsteps as she searches for clues -- and her adventures unearth some nasty secrets that lead Cordelia dangerously close to joining Mark in his untimely demise.

As far as mysteries go, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is pretty standard fare. P. D. James has a writing style that is at once easy and esoteric, as can be seen when Cordelia first contemplates Mark Callendar's apparent suicide note, which quoted a passage of poetry:
Cordelia thought that Blake's gently unemphatic exhortation, devoid of violence or despair, was more appropriate to suicide by drowning or by poison -- a ceremonious floating or sinking into oblivion -- than to the trauma of hanging. And yet there was that analogy of falling, of launching oneself into the void. But this speculation was indulgent fantasy. He had chosen Blake: he had chosen hanging. (41, Warner Books 1972 edition)
One difficulty with mystery novels is that they often pander to the pulp-fiction crowd who don't want to be challenged with classical allusions or philosophical references (reading on the beach shouldn't require any brain power, apparently). P. D. James' insistence that a good mystery is one that aligns itself with more high-brow works is part of the reason I return to her writing again and again. In the popular Adam Dalgleish series, for example, her detective is not only a Commander at New Scotland Yard but is also a published poet. An Unsuitable Job is no exception to James' typical style; by including passages of literature, nods to historical events, and the chance for the reader to draw independent conclusions about the philosophical or psychological ramifications of the events and dialogue, James allows for her book to serve two purposes: engaging mystery and thought-provoking work of literary merit.

As for the storyline in particular, Cordelia is a likeable enough heroine: she is smart and brave, but she is also naive and wants desperately to be accepted as a woman and as a detective. Her character development, as she puzzles through her first case with no partner, is almost as gripping as the investigation itself. The mystery of Mark Callendar's death satisfies all of the necessary qualifications of a good detective novel; there were plenty of twists and turns that keep one from guessing the ending to the mystery too early, which is always frustrating and ruins the delicious experience of armchair detecting (part of the reason I love Agatha Christie so much, of course, is how tortuous the path to a solution always is in her books).

The ending to An Unsuitable Job for a Woman leaves something to be desired, however (no plot details will be revealed in the following, so you are free to read on if you haven't finished the book): Adam Dalgleish sweeps in and has an "I solved it all" conversation with Cordelia in the last 10 pages that comes out of nowhere. Dalgleish is mentioned as a secondary character throughout the novel (he has a previous connection with Cordelia's boss), but he never makes an appearance until the very end, and it left me with the impression that Cordelia wasn't the strong, independent private eye she seemed for the rest of the novel. It was as if P. D. James undermined her own newest character with a character she knew that her audience trusted. But why wouldn't she assume that, as devoted readers, we'd put our trust in Cordelia as well? It almost made me feel as if James agreed with the title of the book -- that she much prefers writing in the voice of a male detective -- and that left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

If you're a mystery novel buff or a P. D. James fan, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is one that you will probably enjoy, as it meets all the qualifications of a good, tricky mystery and falls in line with the type of writing found in James' other works. However, if you've never read a mystery before or have no previous experience with P. D. James, this novel may not be the best one to start your adventure with. I'd recommend Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit as a better version of a young, plucky female detective who gets herself in over her head in an exciting murder investigation. If you want to explore the world of P. D. James, try her first novel featuring Adam Dalgleish, Cover Her Face, or the more recent Death in Holy Orders for a more gripping read. If you read any of these, please let me know what you think!

final verdict: **1/2
(2.5 out of 4 stars)

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