Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Second Read

Long-time readers may recall that about a year ago, I sat down here and wrote a review of P. D. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. That was quite possibly the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my blogging tenure. I realized at the time that I was probably being very unfair to the book, which was ruined by an inept audiobook recording that cast Cordelia Gray as a mystery-solving Care Bear on drugs, doing its very best to suck out anything interesting or exciting about the book.

Well, I’ve now read the book for myself, in order to give it a fair assessment. And the jury is back with a surprising verdict. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is… quite good! The story revolves around Cordelia Gray, who inherits a private detective agency when her partner Bernie commits suicide. Before long, she is hired by Sir Ronald Callender, the microbiologist, to look into the suicide of his son Mark Callender. The scientist doesn’t doubt the coroner’s verdict that it was suicide, but he wishes to find out why his son committed suicide.

It’s an interesting idea for a story and of course, since it’s a mystery, it soon turns out that it wasn’t suicide at all. (It was, in fact, a natural death. Kidding!) And so Cordelia investigates Mark’s life and untimely death and comes to a not-particularly-surprising conclusion. I remember having solved the case more-or-less by instinct the first time around. The solution to this mystery just isn’t the most surprising solution in the world— but the ending is brilliant. By that, I mean that you find out whodunit surprisingly early on, with a good 50 pages to go in the story. And what happens in the remaining 50 pages is where, I think, the book’s true brilliance lies.

Not that what came before is bad, though. In fact, I rather admire the book’s tight plot construction. Even things that should have no relevance whatsoever to the plot – Bernie’s suicide, for instance, although I remember wondering last time whether his suicide would turn out to be a locked-room murder – turn out to be vital to the plot. P. D. James not only gives you whodunit, she gives you all the reasons behind that person’s culpability and just what this clue meant and that, by the way, this was a clue too. Plot-wise, a lot of apparently-meaningless threads are joined together with surprising skill into a relatively complex, if not surprising, tapestry of murder.

But it’s what comes after the denouement that really defines the book’s brilliance for me. And I can’t reveal why without spoiling the ending for people who have not read this book. I can’t even hint at the general nature of the conclusion. So if you’ll forgive me, I’ll draw a veil over my opinions on this point (although if anyone’s interested, I have written an essay-- no, seriously.).

That being said, I don’t think this is a perfect book. P. D. James’ writing style can get overly psychoanalytical, to somewhat ridiculous points. When Cordelia is being given a tour of the late Mark Callender’s living quarters, her “guide” randomly bursts into a spiel about how she dislikes Cordelia’s generation and they spend some time analyzing just how pathetic a psychological nutcase this lady is. When we’re at a party, two random students psychoanalyze how a mutual male friend must use sex for his self-confidence, even though neither student nor the friend in question is of any importance to the plot. And so on. James really likes her psychoanalysis. But while I was mildly annoyed this time, an inept audio recording last time made me absolutely furious over these digressions. Now that I’ve read the book for myself, I can testify that I was slightly annoyed, but nowhere near the same level as instilled in me by narrator Davina Porter.

However, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a much better book than I gave it credit for. I don’t want to talk too much about these elements (since there’s an element of spoilers in them) but P. D. James uses the form of the detective story to explore important social issues, especially revolving around feminism. At the same time, she doesn’t sacrifice her story’s merits as a detective story. Although it relies largely on long-outdated science, this actually doesn’t harm the book as much as give the murderer another point in his favour when confronted by Cordelia. The book is still quite well-plotted, and although the twist isn’t exactly surprising to the seasoned reader of detective stories, what happens afterwards is truly brilliant.

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