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Friday, February 26, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: An Unsuitable Job for A Woman

This week the Monday afternoon book discussion group at the Berwyn Public Library met to discuss, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James. It is important to note before we begin that this title is not in the Dalgliesh series, rather it is part of a two book series featuring Cordelia Gray, a young PI. And, as you saw in this post, I created a list of questions that we used loosely to frame the discussion.

Many of the women in our group had read P.D. James before, but only her more popular and plentiful Adam Dagliesh novels, so they were unsure about how they would feel about Cordelia. One participant even went so far as to say she did not like Cordelia at the start becuase of how detached she seemed upon finidng her partner and mentor, dead (of a suicide) in this novel's opening pages.  However, James' writing won her over almost immediately.

Others agreed that what was most striking about this novel was not so much the plot, but rather the writing, language, style, and objective and meticulous details. James' level of detail was commented upon by many in the group. Another participant commented on how too much detail usually bothers her, but not here. Still another member of the club said that all of those descriprions put her right at Cordelia's side; she was right there with Cordelia, so much so that when Cordelia was tossed into a well, this woman felt the breath come out of her own body.

All of this realistic detail made the novel compelling and made the mystery part of the book interesting. The participants loved how the book was loaded with clues; how it was so consciously constructed, but not slowed down by this. We talked about all of the little things from throughout the book that in hindsight, were clues. We had a great time doing this.

I asked the group if they had figured out who dunnit? Although many were not surprised by the identity murderer toward the end, they did love how it was unraveled. However, many were surprised by Cordelia's actions in not properly revealing the murder to the authorities. I don't want to give away the ending, but the who dunnit is not as shocking as how Cordelia handles that information.

We also appreciated the final confrontation between Cordelia and Dagliesh. One participant was glad that Cordelia "told him off." And, as mystery fans, the participants liked the contradiction it set up between the PI and the Police Detective.

We talked about James' social commentary about young people, the British educational system, the family. One person went so far as to say that there wasn't a place for a normal family in this book. A comment that made everyone laugh.

We also spent a lot of time discussing the timeless feel of this novel and how the characters are the driving force here. They liked that many of the characters were fleshed out and that they kept overlapping and meeting out of context.

The one word the group chose to describe this book is "surprising;" surprising both because there was so much in such a small book and because of the ending (both the solving of the mystery and Cordelia's handling of it).

One final point I want to make about the book, although Cordelia appears to be getting another assignment as this novel ends, there is still some question as to whether or not she can make it on her own as a woman PI. I tried to get my ladies to discuss this, being that there is only 1 more book in the Cordelia Gray series. They refused to think she would fail, and would not discuss it. They loved her too much to bear to think of her not succeeding. However, if your group does this book, I think it is worth considering. What is James saying about Cordeila's professional success by only giving her 2 cases?

Overall, this was a wonderful discussion  both about the novel and what makes for a good mystery. This really was the first time we all loved a book and still had a great discussion. Usually we need dissent to get things going; however, I think James is such a compelling and accomplished writer that we had plenty to dissect as we discussed.

Readalikes: Cordelia Gray is so similar to Jaqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs that it would be a crime not to mention the similarities.  Other mystery writers who came up during the discussion as similar were Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

The NoveList readalike article for P. D. James also lists Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford series, Elizabeth George's Inspector Thomas Lynley series, and Deborah Crombie.

As if these are not enough, personally, I would also suggest fans of James' Cordelia Gray try mystery writers Louise Penny and Peter Robinson.

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