Box clever: Sisters in law

Helen Baxendale's Cordelia Gray is the latest recruit to the growing number of feisty female television detectives

Detection on television has traditionally been a well-fortified male castle which lets its draw-bridge down to admit women only with the deepest reluctance. For every Jane Tennison, there have been myriad Morses, Taggarts, Dalgleishs and Frosts. But now a regiment of women - none of them monstrous - seems to be besieging the male stronghold.

Hetty Wainthrop Investigates (with Patricia Routledge), Beck (Amanda Redman), Silent Witness (Amanda Burton), and Anna Lee (Imogen Stubbs), all feature female, post-Prime Suspect detectives by any other name, who often outwit slower male colleagues in solving crimes. They are now going to be joined on this ever-expanding beat by Helen Baxendale, who plays private eye Cordelia Gray in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, ITV's new three-part adaptation of the PD James novel.

The very title of the piece suggests that the business of crime-busting is no place for the female of the species, but James disagrees. A fiercely intelligent interviewee, she concedes that "detection has always been a male preserve. Some women can feel ill-at-ease with what is, by tradition, a masculine world. But women make good detectives. They are conscientious about detail and far less gullible than men. They are quicker to tell if someone is lying. They are more likely to say about a suspect, `Oh yes? He would say that, wouldn't he?' It's harder to pull the wool over a woman's eyes.

"Very often women have an extra intuitive sense, and it's easier for them to get information out of people," James continues. "But I don't like dividing these things up, as though all the intuition is on one side and all your sex has got is brute force. I've known men who are very intuitive - though maybe not in the police force," she adds with a laugh.

Baxendale, a woman on the verge of stardom after her performances in Cardiac Arrest, Truth or Dare and Cold Feet, brings her independence of mind to the role of Cordelia. When the snooty PA of a potential client tells her: "You do understand that he's quite capable of not offering you the job," Cordelia snaps back without batting an eyelid: "I hope you understand that I'm quite capable of not accepting it."

Having been left the business by a boss who committed suicide, Cordelia is determined to follow his last words to her: "Always trust your instinct, always listen to your inner voice." She may be making her way in the world without the help of any men, but that doesn't make her a man-eater. "Cordelia isn't a ball-breaker," observes Colin Ludlow, the producer of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. "Helen has already played that par excellence in Cardiac Arrest. Jane Tennison is determined to outdo men at their own game, but that isn't Cordelia's game. She has Girl Power in terms of no longer having to define herself by male role-models."

As for Baxendale, she is just delighted that TV 'tecs have progressed from the not-too distant past when their sole role was to make tea and simper for their stressed-out male bosses. Dressed in a neat pinstripe jacket, Baxendale asserts that "there are still far more male detectives, but it has moved on. Women are getting a fantastic opportunity because they are half the population and people want to see them on television doing what they do in life. Lots of women have responsible, high-powered jobs, and television is mirroring that, thank God. I've been lucky to play women like that, and not just victims and easily-manipulated little things."

There seems little danger that our thirst for detective dramas will be slaked. James, habitually described as the "doyenne" of crime-writers, explains the appeal. "We like a story, and too often in highly-regarded novels, which we plod through and which win the Booker Prize, we don't get much plot. Detective stories bring order out of disorder. There is a logical solution to a problem - and that is comforting and satisfying. It also distances our fear of death and violence. Finally, it affirms our belief that we live in a moral and rational universe."

According to Baxendale, the explanation is much simpler. Telly 'tecs continue to be popular because "we get to see the sordid side of life, run around in a fast car, and have a big gun. That's what I like about them, anyway."

`An Unsuitable Job for a Woman' starts on ITV at 9pm on Friday