Cordelia Grey is the protagonist of two novels by P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin.
Grey was never as popular as James’ other detective, Adam Dalgliesh. Yet it’s Cordelia Grey that I most adore. There is something in her internal emotional life that is compelling to me, something reserved and wound tight and determined.
Cordelia is a young woman who wants a path of her own making. Yet it seems that the entire world is determined to make her into things she is not. The title of the first book reflects this — having inherited a detective agency from the only person in the world who seemed to genuinely see her, Cordelia is told over and over how she should not be a detective. Yet she persists.
Let’s talk about that inheritance for a moment. Bernie Pryde kills himself, in the office, and leaves the business to Cordelia. He leaves the business, which is failing, the office space, and the mess of cleaning up after him. Literally. She does so in a series of scenes written beautifully by James, scenes that highlight the contradictory emotions that accompany death.
Grey is very, very alone. Yet she is not self-pitying. She seems to think that loneliness is the price of independence, one that she is willing to pay. Unlike some other detectives, Cordelia does not solve crimes because she is great at it, or because she has a burning need for justice, or because she feel deep compassion for the victims. Cordelia is a detective because she needs the money.
Yet, somewhere along the line, she begins to find purpose in her profession. There is a beauty in truth, however ugly those truths may be. Truth is independent, it stands on its own, a person can rely on it. If Cordelia can spend her life in the service of truth, then perhaps her life will have meant something on its own terms, outside the hammering desires of the world that surrounds her.