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Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to ...
Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to self-destruction. What she discovers instead is a twisting trail of secrets and sins, and the strong scent of murder.
Handsome Mark Callender did not die the way a well-brought-up gentleman should. He is found hanging by his neck, a lipstick stain on his mouth and a picture of a nude girl nearby. The official verdict is suicide, but his aristocratic father suspects murder, and hires fledgling detective Cordelia Gray to investigate. As this determined young lady follows a twisting trail of guilty secrets and shameful sins, she soon reaches the conclusion that the nicest people can do the nastiest things -- in a case that proves at every shocking turn to be "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman."
"P.D. James is an addictive writer, [with] a quality of intelligence, a genuine curiosity about character, and an ability to describe the density of little known lives."
"One of the most compulsive and acutely observed thrillers of the year—a why-dunnit, rather than a who-dunnit; a study of the complex motives that make up the cold mind of a killer."
"James is assuredly the most gifted crime novelist writing in English today."
—The Toronto Star
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 bedsitting 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 G.L.C. 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
(Props: 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-C.I.D. 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 in 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 all 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.
Posted February 29, 2004
The prose is racy and the language, though replete with dictionary inspired words does not impede the speed with which one reads the novel. The story is about a girl-detective who solves the mystery of a suicide committed by a young man. James¿ usage of words is what is very inspiring rather than the somewhat morbid and unbelievable end. Should be read not only for the mystery but also for the vivid description of surroundings brought forth with lucid rapidity and astounding image inducing clarity. While reading Agatha one tries to reach the end quickly here you can savor upon the prose at leisure and chew upon the mystery as each page, each passage is interesting. That¿s what is riveting about the book. I think it will also make a nice film ¿ the Hallmark movie type that is!
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2013
This is the first PD James’ novel I've read and therefore I'm unable to compare it to her other books. Although written in the 70s, tech apart, it didn't come across as dated. In some ways it reminded me of the first of the Millennium Trilogy. Both novels feature a family member who, dissatisfied with a police investigation, instruct someone outside the police to reopen the case, only to open a can of worms instead with all that entails.
The narrative structure was very easy to follow and I knew where and with whom I was the majority of the time. Being constantly privy to Cordelia Grey's innermost thoughts, gave the story immediacy. The frequent mention (and eventual appearance) of Adam Dalgleish served as a nice steppingstone between the protagonist of this novel, and the author’s most famous literary creation.
Was this the best PD James to start with? I don't know, but I think it a shame only two novels feature Cordelia Grey. Maybe Mrs James should bring her back to life, but now a sixty-something private detective, still plying her trade?
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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Posted July 22, 2013
Love anything PD James writes. She is right up there with Agatha Christie. Her characters are full and complete. The mystery is always a great "who dun it" Read anything she writes, if you are a mystery reader you will never be disappointed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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