I suspect most authors committed to a mystery genre often grow tired of their creations. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes at one point, only to resurrect him at the demand of his fans. Elizabeth George too has recently attempted to bypass her Inspector Lynley, much to her fans chagrin (include me among that list). With "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman," I suspect we find the same motive with P.D. James' divergence from the Dalgliesh novels. Instead of the inimitable and formidable Dalgliesh, we have the 22-year-old, sometimes uncertain Cordelia Gray attempting to jumpstart a detective agency willed to her through the suicide of her benefactor and mentor, Bernie Pryde.
In the course of "Unsuitable" and a companion book "The Skull Beneath the Skin," Ms. James produces one of the great characters of detective fiction. Lacking very little professional experience, Cordelia uses instinct, a sharp mind and surprising courage to unravel the truth to murders that on the surface seem so obviously solvable.
It is not until the conclusion of the "Unsuitable" case that Dalgliesh shows up to clear away some of the messy details, but its clearly Cordelia's story that Ms. James is focused upon.
Read this book, and then immediate procure "Skull," the far superior book in the very short two-book series. In my mind, they both are far better written, more exciting than any of the Dalgliesh series (I can't believe I am saying that - that's like saying an orange is better than an apple).
Ms. James never returns to Cordelia, other than a couple of brief mentions in later Dalgliesh stories. Once, she sends Dalgliesh flowers and a short note while he is recovering from an illness, and there is a slight hint of romantic interest - moreso on her part than perhaps on the continual mourning Dalgliesh.
About a year ago, Ms. James was in my hometown promoting her autobiography (a nice read, but not particularly well put together). Numerous questions were posed regarding Cordelia. Her response was that she is constantly amazed how popular a character is Cordelia, and admits that yes, SHE too loved her. But, she said, Dalgliesh pulled her back. I personally asked her during the book autographing stage whether Cordelia any chance of reappearing. Keeping in mind that Ms. James is well into her 80s, it was probably a silly question. But she said she had considered it, but that she made an awful mistake. She said she had "inexplicably sold Cordelia" to the BBC, who had promised her that when dramatizing "Unsuitable" and "Skull," they would keep the character true to the book. They did so until the actress portraying her came up pregnant during filming, so they wrote into it that Cordelia was also pregnant from a liason with a lover that she no longer was seeing. Anyone who has read and loved these books know that that would have been totally out of character for Cordelia. Ms. James said she was so angry that she traveled the book circuit saying Cordelia of the BBC was NOT the Cordelia of her two books. Unfortunately, she said, "I don't know how I can bring her back onto the pages. She's dead to me now."
So read the books, but never no never go near the televised series. Cordelia is very much alive in these pages, and you will be ever so glad.