Yes, we finally have a clear winner for our first group read! An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James. Details about the novel can be found in last week's diary, and in michelewln's earlier Monday Murder Mystery diary.
Before we start talking about P.D. James, I'd like to include a few words about Tana French, whose first novel, In The Woods, was the runner-up. Whether you voted for her book or not, but love mysteries or literary fiction, don't take her off of your TBR pile. Every one of her books about the Dublin Murder Squad is a stand-alone but is enriched by being read in sequence. I wrote a full review on her work here, and have already pre-ordered her next novel, A Secret Place (due out on September 2, 2014).
Baroness James, aka P.D. James, was born Phyllis Dorothy James in 1920 in Oxford, England. Her father worked for Inland Revenue. Her mother, who encouraged all three of her children to become readers, suffered from mental illness disabling enough to require her institutionalization. As the oldest child, James left school at 16 and went to work in a tax office.
In 1941 she married a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and followed him to London where she spent most of the war with their two children. Her husband returned from the war with schizophrenia which required her to become the breadwinner in the family. He passed away in 1964. She spent almost twenty years working for the NHS in hospital administration before applying to the British Civil Service in 1968. She was accepted into the Service and eventually became a senior civil servant in the crime department.
Her first novel, published in 1962, was Cover Her Face, the story of a murdered unwed mother, that introduced her most famous character, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. Ten years later, Adam Dalgliesh is a secondary character in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, the first of two novels to feature Private Detective Cordelia Gray. For those like myself, who could never understand why she stopped at two novels, James explained it, a few years ago, in an interview for The Guardian:
There was great excitement around the creation of the character at the time, but James gave her only one further full-length outing, in 1982's The Skull Beneath the Skin, and she has since been criticised for casting her feminist role model aside. But the decision, she says, was forced on her. "The producers of the film Mrs Brown said they'd like to make some Cordelia Gray programmes, and asked if they could develop the character. I was concentrating on Dalgliesh, and also by this point had Kate Miskin [Dalgliesh's sidekick], who's very like Cordelia – a gutsy girl from a deprived background. So I thought I'd let them try it. Then one day I was at the hairdresser's and I read that the actor playing Cordelia was pregnant, but was going to carry on with the part and make her into an unmarried mother. I got on to one of the directors, and he said, we thought she could have an American lover who's deserted her, and she'll continue to do her job while she's pregnant. And I said, Cordelia was not the sort of girl to have an affair resulting in a pregnancy. If she'd had an affair she wouldn't have had a baby; if she did have a baby, she would take the view that the father had a right to know, and the child had the right to a father. I realised my character had gone."P.D. James wrote a column for The Guardian Paperback Writer Column in 2004 in which she discusses why she turned to writing detective fiction.
The detective story, which is, of course, only one kind of the broad spectrum of crime writing which can stretch from the cosy certainties of Mayhem Parva to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, is admittedly an artificial form. But all fiction is artificial, the selection of the writer's internal compulsions and preoccupations and external experience in a form which he or she hopes will satisfy the reader's expectations while conforming to Henry James's definition of the purpose of a novel: 'To help the human heart to know itself'.James was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1983 and since 1991, as Baroness James of Holland Park, is a life peer of the House of Lords. (More about her awards and honors next week.)
The technical problems of a detective story are to me fascinating: how to balance setting, characterisation and plot so that all three are interrelated and contribute to the whole; how to create a detective, whether amateur or professional, who will remain a credible human being, operating in a highly technological age, one who is both a successful detective and an agent of human justice and who is yet aware of the moral ambiguities both of his job and of the organisation in which he operates. But perhaps the greatest problem, and one which Dorothy L. Sayers thought prevented the detective story from being regarded as literature, is to explore the compulsions and complexities of the murderer's mind without revealing until the final chapter that he or she is indeed the murderer.
I suggest we aim for a two week read since this novel is about 250 pages long. An internet search came up with the following book club discussion questions for AUJW (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman). Don't panic, there will be no quiz, but I thought it might be helpful to look at some possible discussion questions before reading the book.
This list will be republished again next Monday (March 24) and if you would like we can begin by discussing anything from Chapters One, Two and Three, which will take us to the halfway point in the book.
Book Discussion Questions for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James
- What is a suitable job for a woman? Why is this not one in the 1970s? Is it one today? What is this novel saying about the place of women in society? How has the role of women in detective fiction changed since 1972?
- How is An Unsuitable Job old fashioned? How is it modern? How is it different from a book written by today’s mystery writers? What other books is this one similar to?
- This is one of James’ earlier novels. How did you like the writing style and organization of the book? Have you read others? How has her style changed?
- Did you figure out whodunit?
- James’ is described as a writer of cozies. Is this true? How does she transcend the subgenre’s confines?
- How is this story tied to its time and place? How would it be different set in another time or place?
- Were there too many or too few details? What did you still want to know after you closed the book?
- Who were your favorite characters? How did you not like? Do you relate to any of them? Did Cordelia Gray remind you of anyone?
- Family obligations is a big theme in this book. What do you think James is saying about the state of the British family?
- What is this novel saying about the education system in England?
- Was this novel believable? Why?
- Did you find this book uplifting or depressing?
- Was there any humor in this book?
- What are the book’s strengths? What about its weaknesses? What was your favorite part? What could you have done without?
- How did you feel about the novel’s ending? What will happen to Cordelia? Will she make it on her own?
Questions by Becky Spratford for the Berwyn (IL) Public Library 2/22/11
Used with permission