Read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman Online
Authors: P. D. James
Praise for P. D. James
“Her style is literate, her plots are complicated, her clues are abundant and fair and her solutions are intended to come as a surprise without straining credulity beyond that subtle point which is instinctively recognized and respected by addicts and practitioners alike.”
Times Literary Supplement
“The finest English crime novelist of her generation.”
The Globe and Mail
“P. D. James is one of the national treasures of British fiction. As James takes us from one life to another, her near-Dickensian scale becomes apparent.”
“P. D. James is unbeatable.”
“She is an addictive writer. P. D. James takes her place in the long line of those moralists who tell a story as satisfying as it is complete.”
“P. D. James … writes the most lethal, erudite, people-complex novels of murder and detection since Michael Innes first began and Dorothy Sayers left us.”
“James is quite possibly the best writer in the mystery field today.”
The Washington Post
Also by P. D. James
Cover Her Face
A Mind to Murder
Shroud for a Nightingale
The Black Tower
Death of an Expert Witness
The Skull Beneath the Skin
A Taste for Death
Devices and Desires
The Children of Men
A Certain Justice
Death in Holy Orders
The Murder Room
The Private Patient
The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811
(with T. A. Critchley)
Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography
Talking About Detective Fiction
VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 2011
Copyright © 1972 P. D. James
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, in 2011. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Faber and Faber, London, in 1972. Distributed by Random House of
Vintage Canada with colophon is a registered trademark.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
James, P. D., 1920–
An unsuitable job for a woman / P. D. James.
PR6060.A56U57 2011 823’.914 C2010-903836-3
For Jane and Peter, who kindly allowed two
of my characters to live at 57 Norwich Street
A crime novelist, by virtue of his unpleasant craft, has the duty to create at least one highly reprehensible character in each book and it is perhaps inevitable that from time to time their sanguinary misdeeds should impinge upon the dwellings of the just. A writer whose characters have chosen to act out their tragicomedy in an ancient university city is in particular difficulty. He can, of course, call it Oxbridge, invent colleges named after improbable saints and send his characters boating on the Camsis, but this timid compromise merely confuses characters, readers and the author alike, with the result that no one knows precisely where he is and two communities are offered opportunities for offence instead of one.
The greater part of this story is unrepentantly set in Cambridge, a city in which, undeniably, there live and work policemen, coroners, doctors, students, college servants, flower sellers, Dons, scientists, and even, no doubt, retired Majors. None of them, to my knowledge, bears the slightest resemblance to his counterpart in this book. All the characters, even the most unpleasant, are imaginary; the city, happily for us all, is not.
On the morning of Bernie Pryde’s death—or it may have been the morning after, since Bernie died at his own convenience, nor did he think the estimated time of his departure worth recording—Cordelia was caught in a breakdown of the Bakerloo Line outside Lambeth North and was half an hour late at the office. She came up from Oxford Circus Underground into the bright June sunshine, sped past the early morning shoppers scanning the windows of Dickins and Jones and plunged into the cacophony of Kingly Street, threading her way between the blocked pavement and the shining mass of cars and vans which packed the narrow street. The hurry, she knew, was irrational, a symptom of her obsession with order and punctuality. There were no appointments booked; no clients to be interviewed; no case outstanding; not even a final report to be written. She and Miss Sparshott, the temporary typist, at Cordelia’s suggestion were circulating information about the Agency to all the London solicitors in the hope of attracting custom; Miss Sparshott would probably be busy with it now, eyes straying to her watch, tapping out her
staccato irritation at every minute of Cordelia’s lateness. She was an unprepossessing woman with lips permanently taut as if to prevent the protruding teeth from springing from her mouth, a receding chin with one coarse hair which grew as quickly as it was plucked, and fair hair set in stiff corrugated waves. That chin and mouth seemed to Cordelia the living refutation that all men are born equal and she tried from time to time to like and sympathize with Miss Sparshott, with a life lived in bed-sitting rooms, measured in the five-penny pieces fed to the gas stove and circumscribed by fell seams and hand hemming. For Miss Sparshott was a skilled dressmaker, an assiduous attender at the GLC evening classes. Her clothes were beautifully made but so dateless that they were never actually in fashion; straight skirts in grey or black which were exercises in how to sew a pleat or insert a zip fastener; blouses with mannish collars and cuffs in insipid pastel shades on which she distributed without discretion her collection of costume jewellery; intricately cut dresses with hems at the precise length to emphasize her shapeless legs and thick ankles.
Cordelia had no premonition of tragedy as she pushed open the street door which was kept perpetually on the latch for the convenience of the secretive and mysterious tenants and their equally mysterious visitors. The new bronze plaque to the left of the door gleamed brightly in the sun in incongruous contrast to the faded and dirt-encrusted paint. Cordelia gave it a short glance of approval.
Pryde’s Detective Agency
Bernard G. Pryde Cordelia Gray)
It had taken Cordelia some weeks of patient and tactful persuasion to convince Bernie that it would be inappropriate to append
the words “ex-CID Metropolitan Police” to his name or prefix “Miss” to hers. There had been no other problem over the plaque since Cordelia had brought no qualifications or relevant past experience to the partnership and indeed no capital, except her slight but tough twenty-two-year-old body, a considerable intelligence which Bernie, she suspected, had occasionally found more disconcerting than admirable, and a half-exasperated, half-pitying affection for Bernie himself. It was obvious very early to Cordelia that in some undramatic but positive way life had turned against him. She recognized the signs. Bernie never got the enviable front left-hand seat on the bus; he couldn’t admire the view from the train window without another train promptly obscuring it; the bread he dropped invariably fell buttered side downwards; the Mini, reliable enough when she drove it, stalled for Bernie at the busiest and most inconvenient intersections. She sometimes wondered whether, in accepting his offer of a partnership in a fit of depression or of perverse masochism, she was voluntarily embracing his ill-luck. She certainly never saw herself as powerful enough to change it.
The staircase smelt as always of stale sweat, furniture polish and disinfectant. The walls were dark green and were invariably damp whatever the season as if they secreted a miasma of desperate respectability and defeat. The stairs, with their ornate wrought-iron balustrade, were covered with split and stained linoleum patched by the landlord in various and contrasting colours only when a tenant complained. The Agency was on the third floor. There was no clatter of typewriter keys as Cordelia entered and she saw that Miss Sparshott was engaged in cleaning her machine, an ancient Imperial which was a constant cause of justified complaint. She looked up, her face blotched with resentment, her back as rigid as the space bar.
“I’ve been wondering when you would turn up, Miss Gray. I’m concerned about Mr. Pryde. I think he must be in the inner office but he’s quiet, very quiet, and the door’s locked.”
Cordelia, chill at heart, wrenched at the door handle: “Why didn’t you do something?”
“Do what, Miss Gray? I knocked at the door and called out to him. It wasn’t my place to do that, I’m only the temporary typist, I’ve no authority here. I should have been placed in a very embarrassing position if he had answered. After all, he’s entitled to use his own office I suppose. Besides, I’m not even sure if he’s there.”
“He must be. The door’s locked and his hat is here.”
Bernie’s trilby, the stained brim turned up all round, a comedian’s hat, was hanging on the convoluted hatstand, a symbol of forlorn decrepitude. Cordelia was fumbling in her shoulder bag for her own key. As usual, the object most required had fallen to the bottom of the bag.
Miss Sparshott began to clatter on the keys as if to disassociate herself from impending trauma. Above the noise she said defensively: “There’s a note on your desk.”
Cordelia tore it open. It was short and explicit. Bernie had always been able to express himself succinctly when he had something to say: “I’m sorry, partner, they’ve told me it’s cancer and I’m taking the easy way out. I’ve seen what the treatment does to people and I’m not having any. I’ve made my will and it’s with my solicitor. You’ll find his name in the desk. I’ve left the business to you. Everything, including
the equipment. Good luck and thank you.” Underneath with the inconsiderateness of the doomed he had scribbled a final unfair plea: “If you find me alive, for God’s sake wait before calling help. I rely on you for this, partner. Bernie.”
She unlocked the door of the inner office and went inside, closing the door carefully behind her.
It was a relief to see that there was no need to wait. Bernie was dead. He lay slumped over the desk as if in an extremity of exhaustion. His right hand was half clenched and an open cut-throat razor had slithered over the desktop leaving a thin trail of blood like a snail’s track and had come to rest precariously poised on the extreme edge of the desk. His left wrist, scored with two parallel cuts, lay palm upwards in the enamel bowl which Cordelia used for the washing-up. Bernie had filled it with water but it was now brimful with a pale pinky liquid smelling sickly sweet, through which the fingers, curved as if in supplication and looking as white and delicate as those of a child, gleamed as smooth as wax. The blood and water had overflowed onto the desk and floor, soaking the oblong of garish rug which Bernie had recently bought in the hope of impressing visitors with his status but which Cordelia privately thought had only drawn attention to the shabbiness of the rest of the office. One of the cuts was tentative and superficial but the other had gone deep as the bone and the severed edges of the wound, drained of blood, gaped cleanly like an illustration in an anatomy textbook. Cordelia remembered how Bernie had once described the finding of a prospective suicide when he was first on the beat as a young constable. It was an old man huddled into a warehouse doorway who had slashed his wrist with a broken bottle—but who had later been dragged back to reluctant half-life because an immense clot of blood had blocked the severed veins. Bernie, remembering, had taken precautions to ensure that his blood would not clot. He had, she noticed, taken another precaution; there was an empty teacup, the one in which she served his afternoon tea, on the right of the desk with a grain or two of powder, aspirin
perhaps or a barbiturate, staining the rim and side. A dried trickle of mucus, similarly stained, hung from the corner of his mouth. His lips were pursed and half open like those of a sleeping child, petulant and vulnerable.