My first P.D. James novel (and also the first book I finished in our bright and shiny new decade), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is precisely the type of crime novel that I can really get behind: ample backstory and character development, rich setting, sordid–but not gratuitously violent–circumstances, surprising secrets revealed (but no silly plot twists with new evil villains), and a general sense that solving the case and finding out ‘what really happened’ may not actually make things any better in the end. (That’s a lot of key requirements to have for a novel, I know, but every so often, they are all incorporated together and the result is deeply satisfying.)
Cordelia Gray is a fully realized character, with James perhaps providing a fair amount of information about her past–that her father was “an itinerant Marxist poet and amateur revolutionary”; that she spent six years being educated in convent school by accident–which is not entirely relevant to the plot (or, actually, to our understanding of how Cordelia reacts in particular situations), but interesting and well wrought all the same. Cordelia is “a survivor” in her own words, a young woman isolated from her peers without confidants, susceptible to fear and unease and self-consciousness, but still resourceful and resilient when forced into tough situations.
She’s is also ethical, but not prigish or overly moralistic, a quality which becomes vital to the plot, but is also–I think–vital to the character of a novice private eye. I personally tire equally of honor-bound vigilantes operating above the law on their righteous missions and of staunchly by-the-book police officers with a sense of obligation to the service of wholly legal justice. (Characters of the latter style, are, of course, not really in vogue these days, but are no less tiresome when they do shamble along.) At any rate, Cordelia fits somewhere in the middle of these stereotypes, and is rather fresh, fallible, and very likable for it.
Cordelia’s character (and her commie background, for that matter) are part and parcel of the time and world that James has set her story in. The novel takes place in Cambridge, England in the seventies. There is a feeling in the story that a very recent sense of idealism and change has given way to a more cynical decadence. And although this cynicism is expressed in response to a variety of ideals and circumstances–justice, truthfulness, morality–this comes across particularly in Cordelia and other character’s discussions of sexual relationships. Characters–particularly female characters–are sexually frank and unabashed, but overtly skeptical and not a little derisive about their experiences. We’re told that Cordelia “…had never thought of virginity as other than a temporary and inconvenient state, part of the general insecurity and vulnerability of being young.” Having discovered her son in a surprising sexual situation, one woman sardonically comments, “We’re all sexually sophisticated these days.” We’re also told that Cordelia grew up with a band of hodge-podge ‘comrades’ for whom “sexual activities were…more a weapon of revolution or a gesture against the bourgeois mores they despised than a response to human need.” This pervading sense of unromantic realism provides a useful background for the circumstances of Mark Callender’s death, particularly as we learn more about his own idealism and the progressively complicated circumstances of his suicide.
I should also note that James is really a lovely prose writer–descriptive without staid embellishment, observant and lyrical while still getting to the point. Consider a passage where Cordelia is attacked later in the book (no worries–I won’t say by who or why):
She wasn’t expecting trouble outside the cottage and the attack took her by surprise. There was the half-second of pre-knowledge before the blanket fell but that was too late…The movement of liberation was a miracle and a horror. The blanket was whipped off. She never saw her assailant. There was a second of sweet reviving air, a glimpse, so brief that it was barely comprehended, of blinding sky seen through greenness and then she felt herself falling, falling in helpless astonishment into cold darkness. The fall was a confusion of old nightmares, unbelievable seconds of childhood terrors recalled. Then her body hit the water. Ice-cold hands dragged her into a vortex of horror…She shook her head, and, through her stinging eyes, she looked up. The black tunnel that stretched above her ended in a moon of blue light. Even as she looked, the well lid was dragged slowly back like the shutter of a camera. The moon became a half moon; then a crescent. At last there was nothing but eight thin slits of light.
All said, this was a nice start to the year’s reading, and I’ll certainly pick up another James book soon.