Cordelia Gray

Created by P.D. James
(1920–2014)

“She wanted to appear efficient, but not too efficient.”
— Cordelia in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

A far cry fromt G.G. Fickling’s Honey West or Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz. One of the true Grand Dames of Mystery Fiction, P.D. James should get credit for also creating the modern female P. I. when she unleashed young, twenty-two year old CORDELIA GRAY upon an unsuspecting world. Cordelia, the convent-raised child of a would-be revolutionary, inherits a shabby detective agency when her mentor, Bernie Pryde, commits suicide. Instead of selling it off for a quick profit as everyone expects her to, she decides to keep it going, despite it being “an unsuitable job for a woman,” the title of P.D. James 1972 novel (and a possible tip of the hat to James Rubel’s No Business For a Lady, which also featured a female private eye?).

Shy, lacking in confidence, and unworldly, Cordelia at first makes for an unlikely and at times cringe-worthy private detective, having no real training or experience (she had only been there for two months when her boss died). But still waters do indeed run deep in Cordelia’s case. She’s certainly not hard-boiled, and at times the novel scans like a particularly idiotic gothic romance, but as the book progresses, and our heroine learns the ropes and begins to better understand herself, it turns out Cordelia is exactly the right woman for the job; resourceful, pragmatic and one hell of a detective. Which is why it’s a shame James doesn’t get the credit she deserves, despite paving the way for younger sisters such as Sharon McCone (1977), Anna Lee (1980), V.I. Warshawski (1982) and Kinsey Millhone (1982.

The first novel did generate a certain amount of attention, and inspired an atmospheric British film adaptation in 1982, coincidentally about the same time a second book, The Skull Beneath the Skin, was published, with Cordelia reduced to looking for lost pets. The film, while well received, never really garnered the audience it deserved, either in Britain or in the States. However, fifteen years later, a new British and American-produced made-for-television film based on An Unsuitable Job for a Woman appeared, starring Helen Baxendale as Cordelia, which served as a pilot for a string of further episodes.

Unfortunately, those sequels were based on original scripts by other writers, not on anything written by PD James. One plot development in particular upset fans — when the previously virginal Cordeilia’s unexpectedly became pregnant, after a brief and uncharacteristic Italian fling. As well as coping with carrying a child, Cordelia found herself having to cope with her well-meaning, but overly-protective office assistant, Mrs. Sparshott, who insists on taking a more active role in the cases that come their way, due to her boss’s “condition.”

Author P.D. James is one of the mystery genre’s most well-respected authors, and the creator of Adam Dalgliesh, the moody, book-loving police detective (and not a private eye, but we won’t hold that against her.) She seems to have some spunk to her credit, too. James reportedly was so taken aback by the ITV/PBS TV series from the late nineties that she said she’d never write another book with Cordelia, in case those cretins get a hand on it. That’s no way to treat a Lady. Or a Dame.

TRIVIA

  • I may be wrong, but it seems the last pregnant private eye (and possibly the genre’s first) was Max Allan Collins Ms. Tree, but Cordelia’s pregnant private eye was probably a first for television.

UNDER OATH

  • “An impeccable pleasure to read.”
    — Kirkus Reviews onAn Unsuitable Job for a Woman
  •  “…a top-rated puzzle of peril that holds you all the way”
    — The New York Times
  • An Unsuitable Job for a Woman… begins with a dark, grim twist, seems to lighten up in the middle before returning to dark territory for its conclusion. Good P.I. characters and intelligent writing that is deceptively uncomplicated. A groundbreaking book, often imitated.”
    — Vince Emery, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)

NOVELS

FILM

  • AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN
    (1982, Boyd’s/Castle Hill)
    90 minutes
    Based on the novel by P.D. James
    Written by Elizabeth McKay, Brian Scobie, Christopher Petit
    Directed by Christopher Petit
    Starring Pippa Guard as CORDELIA GRAY
    Also starring Billie Whitelaw, Paul Freeman, Dominic Guard, Elizabeth Spriggs, David Horovitch, Bernadette Short

TELEVISION

  • AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN: SACRIFICE | Buy this DVD
    (1997, ITV/PBS)
    Originally aired on PBS’s Mystery! April 23, 30, and May 7, 1998
    180 minutes
    Based on the novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James
    Adapted by William Humble
    Directed by Ben Bolt
    An Ecosse Films/Harvest Entertainment/WGBH Boston production
    Producer: Colin Ludlow
    Executive producer: Douglas Rae (for Ecosse Films)
    Executive producer: Stephen Matthews (for HTV)
    Executive producer: Rebecca Eaton (for WGBH)
    Starring Helen Baxendale as CORDELIA GRAY
    Also starring Jeff Nuttall, Andrew Clover, Saskia Mulder, Annette Crosbie, Rosemary Leach, Phyllis Logan, Ian McDiarmid, Struan Rodger, Andrew Clover, Joel Beckett
  • AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN: A LAST EMBRACE | Buy this DVD
    (1998, ITV/PBS)
    Originally aired on ITV, February 19, 26 and March 5, 1998
    150 minutes
    Based on characters created by P.D. James
    Written by William Humble
    Directed by John Strickland
    An Ecosse Films/Harvest Entertainment/WGBH Boston production
    Producer: Colin Ludlow
    Executive producer: Douglas Rae (for Ecosse Films)
    Executive producer: Stephen Matthews (for HTV)
    Executive producer: Rebecca Eaton (for WGBH)
    Starring Helen Baxendale as CORDELIA GRAY
    Also starring Gemma Jones, Annette Crosbie, Leigh Lawson, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Andrew Bicknell, Phillipa Pric, Debbie Chazen, Emma Roberts, Matilda Ziegler
  • AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN: LIVING ON RISK | Buy this DVD
    (1999, ITV/PBS)
    Originally aired on ITV August 27, 1999
    Aired in two one-hour episodes
    Based on characters created by P.D. James
    Written by Christopher Russell
    Directed by David Evans
    Producer: Colin Ludlow
    Executive producer: Douglas Rae (for Ecosse Films)
    Executive producer: Rebecca Eaton (for WGBH)
    Starring Helen Baxendale as CORDELIA GRAY
    with Annette Crosbie as Mrs. Sparshott
    Also starring James Hillier, Gwyneth Strong, Ginny Holder, Silas Carson, Steve John Shepherd
  • AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN: PLAYING GOD | Buy this DVD
    (1999, ITV/PBS)
    Originally aired on PBS’s Mystery! October 28 and November 4, 1999
    Aired in two one-hour episodes
    Based on characters created by P.D. James
    Written by Barbara Machin
    Directed by Mary McMurray
    Producer: Colin Ludlow
    Executive producer: Douglas Rae (for Ecosse Films)
    Executive producer: Rebecca Eaton (for WGBH)
    Starring Helen Baxendale as CORDELIA GRAY
    with Annette Crosbie as Mrs. Sparshott
    Also starring Struan Rodger, Gerard Butler, Flora Montgomery, Catherine Russell, Jack Ellis
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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