Friday, December 17, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “An Unsuitable
Job for a Woman,” by P.D. James

(Editor’s note: This is the 111th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Oregon coast author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, better known to crime-fiction enthusiasts under her pseudonym Kris Nelscott. As Nelscott, she has written six critically acclaimed mystery novels about African-American private eye Smokey Dalton. She’s won the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery, and been short-listed for the Edgar and Shamus awards. Her latest Smokey Dalton short story, “Family Affair,” was reprinted in By Hook or By Crook and 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg. In 2011, WMG Publishing will reissue all six Smokey novels in anticipation of her next installment in that series, The Day After, which will appear in 2012.)

I grew up in a very different time. At the age of 17, I was on the short list to become a page in the United States Senate. Several someones from a Wisconsin high school would be chosen, and my record of extracurricular activities--from debate to Model United Nations--as well as my high grades gave me the best credentials in the state. I was, as my social studies teacher told me, a shoo-in.

Until it came time for the interview. Four of my classmates and I had to travel to Madison, the state capital, to meet the senator and his staff. My four classmates went. I could not.

Not because of anything I had done, mind you. The senator’s staff simply took one look at our list and barred me from attending. Seems I was the only girl in the state to try to become a Senate page.

I didn’t protest. At 17, I already knew there was nothing I could do except hope things would get better. Later that year, I won a prestigious local scholarship that would pay my tuition for all four years of college. That scholarship, given every year to a boy and a girl from the local high school, was the best the school had to offer.

The boy did not have the restrictions built into his scholarship that I had. His scholarship had no restrictions at all. Mine had several, including this one: I would lose the scholarship if I got married while still in college. Silly me, I got married at 19 and forfeited the scholarship. Again, I did not protest the inequity. I knew there was no point--even though I planned to (and did) graduate within the usual four years. Marriage didn’t slow me down. Lack of financial resources hurt, however. I really could have used that money.

At one point, I held four jobs because I had lost that scholarship. Although if I mentioned to my father, a college professor, that I “lost” the scholarship, he would correct me. I had chosen to give it up. True enough. But had I had a penis, I would not have had to make that choice. The inequity was on me solely because of my gender.

One Saturday afternoon, as I manned the used bookstore that provided both one of my four jobs and the only major leak in my income, I stumbled upon a book by a mystery writer who was just becoming famous in the United States. Phyllis Dorothy James White knew all about the inequities that women suffered. Her books resonated with them.

Only I didn’t know that yet, because I had never read a P.D. James novel. The title of this one, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972), caught my eye. It spoke to me for obvious reasons and for reasons not so obvious: the fact that I couldn’t try out for the baseball team even though I was a good hitter, because I was a girl; the fact that I was told to stay out of politics, radio, and medicine, all because I was a girl; and the fact that no one thought anything about those limitations, because it was normal back then to restrict the expectations of girls. Sure, women all over the country, all over the world, were fighting for women’s rights at that point, but the fight was just beginning, and if you mentioned them, you must be one of those bra burners, those wimmen’s libbers, those feministas, all of which sounded really, really bad.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Every job I wanted was unsuitable. Everything I wanted to do was “for boys, honey,” as my mother would gently tell me. Stubborn, resistant girl that I was, I ignored it all. So I picked up James’ book and read it cover to cover.

A confession now: I haven’t re-read that novel in preparation for this essay. I had planned to. Well, actually, I had planned to look through my shelf and find something really obscure, something so forgotten that people would slap their foreheads and go, Oh, yeah! I read that! So I can’t tell you how old-fashioned this P.D. James book is or if it still holds up by modern standards. (It’s P.D. James, so I’m secure in the knowledge that the characters are stellar, the plot good, and the writing fine. I’m just not sure if the politics are, um, politically correct.)

As I thought about The Rap Sheet’s request that I write about a really obscure book, I kept coming back to the James. No one discusses this novel of hers. Cordelia Grey, the heroine, is a one-off. James never revisited her, to my great disappointment.

I loved the book. The unsuitable job, of course, was that of a private detective. Cordelia Grey wasn’t one of those faintly Gothic heroines who fell in love with the man who abused her. She took charge, even when it was hard, and she did things women weren’t supposed to do.

I adored that. So, years later, when I started reading the history of the modern detective novel, and I saw mentions of the largely unsung women who had started the modern female detective subgenre, I was happy. I read about Margaret Maron, who--let’s be honest now--hasn’t ever completely gotten her due outside of the field. I read about Sue Grafton, of course. And about Sara Paretsky, whose writing is exceedingly political and the stronger for it. But all of those writers, at least to me, hark back to Cordelia Grey and her unsuitable job.

Yet no one mentions her anymore. Maybe because she was a one-off. Or maybe because she didn’t influence anyone but me.

My first female detective novel is nearly done. It has taken me 30 years to work up the courage to write about my own gender--at least at novel length. (I have written a number of women-centric short stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine under my real name, Kristine Kathryn Rusch.) It took me a long time to figure out why I waited to write about a female detective.

It’s because back in the day, I swallowed a lot of anger. I was furious that I--the most qualified candidate--couldn’t meet the United States senator and be considered for that job. I was furious that I had to relinquish a scholarship because of a personal choice that had nothing to do with academics and everything to do with my femaleness. I was furious at being barred from sports, at the sexual harassment that was common at my various jobs, at the casual sexism of my professors and mentors.

And I felt (I still feel) that fury does not make good fiction. Fury makes great speeches. Good fiction has great characters in a great story. Everything else is gravy--especially political points. Political points from a place of fury.

Maybe that’s what I admired most about An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. The title hinted at that fury, but the fury was an undercurrent, barely there. Again, I haven’t re-read the book. I’m not sure if I would see the fury for what it is now, or if I just imagined it.

But it was there for me. Understated, important, and hidden beneath a good story.

For most of my life, I have aspired to write an emotional, political point beneath good storytelling. And I’ve aspired to it because of one book I might never have seen if I had kept that long-ago scholarship. If I hadn’t been in that bookstore, trying to earn my way through college.

I guess that’s a lesson. I’m here despite the limitations I faced. Or maybe because of them. I certainly wouldn’t have discovered Cordelia Grey without them.


Keith Raffel said...

Kristine, Loved Cordelia Gray, too. Good news for you. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman was not her only appearance. She's also in The Skull Beneath the Skin. Have fun catching up with her.

Marni said...

Kris, you have a holiday gift to look for: James wrote a sequel (1982) Skull Beneath the Skin for Cordelia. I was fortunate to interview her at her London townhome when I wrote for "Mystery Scene" mag, now defunct. Wonderful lady and a huge influence on my own writing--my novel,THE BLUE VIRGIN, is set in Oxford. She told me there would be no more Cordelia novels as the BBC had made Unsuitable Job into a TV movie which she didn't love and the actress playing her had gotten pregnant and didn't want to do more! (Helen Baxendale?) And she felt readers would see Helen's face after that. Enjoy your hunt!

Barbara said...

Oh, I could have written this. Everything I wanted to do, from playing drums to being a lawyer, was not for girls. Mom actually made me play the cello; I could never figure out why that was considered ladylike. :-) I don't remember reading this book, but I love P.D. James' books and Paretsky, Grafton, and Maron among others. I should have been born later, I guess.

Yvette said...

Great post. I've never read this, but I think I will on your recommendation. I grew up in similar times with similar restrictions that I simply took in stride. It's amazing what you can learn to put up with. I always knew I was as good as and smarter than most, but what was I to do with this information? Lots of frustration for sure. Still, we took it all in stride. It was simply the way it was.

Dorte H said...

A one-off? But there are two Cordelia Gray novels. I agree that she is a terrific detective, but this one is the best in my humble opinion.

michael said...

I have always liked PD James but I had missed this one. I look forward to reading it and your work.

I was born a white male in a small Kansas town in 1954. I saw the waste of the forced roles people had due to absurd reasons. I remember a girl in my 8th grade math class that was brilliant but forced out of high school by a heartless school system. She came from a poor family. It was the 60's so the adults were overreacting to everything we did. Her crime? Before school starts you buy your school clothes. She liked the current fashion of short skirts. When she got to school that year she discovered the fashion had been outlawed by the Principal. Every morning at homeroom the girls would be lined up against the back wall and the teacher would take a ruler and measure how high above the knee the girl's dress was. Her family could not afford new clothes. She was send home often. No one cared what this girl could have become, just how her dresses affected the males.

I still wonder whatever happened to that girl from Lakeside Junior High in Pittsburg, Kansas.

I would like to think she overcame it all like you have.

michael said...

I look forward to reading your first female detective novel. Your story reminded me of someone I knew in 8th grade.

I am a white male, born in Pittsburg, Kansas in 1954. I have seen the waste caused by the roles society at that time demanded we accept.

I had a classmate who was brilliant in math, the best in the school. She came from a poor but proud family. As was common before school started you would buy the clothes you planned to wear for the school year. It was the 60's and my classmate liked the new popular fashion of dresses with short skirts.
Then the school decided to outlaw all skirts of a certain length. Every morning to start the day the girls were lined up against the back wall and the teacher used a ruler to measure how many inches above the knee was the end of the skirt. She was repeatedly sent home. It would be her last year in school.

No one cared how smart she was. No one cared her family did not have the money to replace a wardrobe to meet the whims of the principal. No one cared how much she could have given society. All they cared about was how her clothes affected the males.

I still wonder whatever happened to my classmate from Lakeside Junior High. I hope she was able to overcome it all as well as you have.

Steve Lewis said...

Not that a makes a bit of difference to Kris's excellent post, but Cordelia Gray did make a second appearance, in The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982).

I think she also showed up from time to time in the Dalgleish books, meeting him for lunch and other very minor, inconsequential ways.

There was also a British TV series with Helen Baxendale starring as Cordelia in four long movies in as many years (late 90s, I believe).

The first of the four is based on the book that Kris reviews, and it's very well done. I think the only major way it deviates from the book is that Dalgleish does not appear in the movie, as he does the book.

This was probably because James didn't sign away the rights to the character as she did Cordelia. I've read that one reason James didn't write more books about her than she did, was that the TV people took that character and went different ways with her.

In any case, the TV series is available on DVD, and in writing up this comment, I've convinced myself that I ought to read The Skull Beneath the Skin. I never have.

Mary Vensel White said...

Great idea for a post series. Thanks for the recommendation!

michael said...

Ok, why did I post the same story twice with two different posts.

I was one who got caught in the Gawker hacker mess. After changing my password, my new password has had problems getting through. I had posted and waited until I was sure the problem had repeated. But as you may notice it was just taking its time. My posts are always first draft (if you ever read one you would guess that) and I don't save them. So sorry for the long winded double posts. And for this long winded post.

I hope Kristine understood my point that many boys were watching and remember the injustice she and others faced.

Winifred said...

I've been enjoying the TV series starring Helen Baxendale and Annette Crosby which has been shown on telly once again. The two hour format which started with Inspector Morse really works for TV adaptations. Now I need to read the books!

Thanks for this, really enjoyed he post.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch said...

Thanks for the correction, y'all. I am happy to discover another Cordelia Grey book. I just checked my library and realized I had somehow missed that! I thought I had read all of James. Such a marvelous discovery.

I appreciate the stories as well. I'm so glad that times are different. :-)


kathy d. said...

I have not read the P.D. James books about Cordelia Grey, but I did see on dvd the tv movies made by the BBC based on the books.

I liked them very much, and the actress as well.

Now that I read this post, it reminds me to rewatch them.

And so glad that the post-s author was able to become a published writer.

I just remember in high school that we (young women) had to wear skirts to school, even if it was 20 degrees, with snow up to our knees and higher. That was tough enough.

And, we had to take Home Economics--cooking or sewing. I took sewing, which I can't do to save my life.

And I had to take Stenography--which I have never used as an adult for a job, only to help with note-taking in college, hearing a lecture.

Luckily, those rules have changed. Or, hopefully, they have.