When her first mystery novel, Cover Her Face, appeared in 1962, it was clear that P. D. James would rank with the best of the British writers in that genre. The detective whom she introduced in that book, Adam Dalgleish, is himself a complex and sensitive character, a published poet, a superb psychologist, and above all, a moralist whose work forces him to expose the dark secrets in the lives of those whom he encounters. Later Dalgleish books, such as A Mind to Murder (1963), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), A Taste for Death (1986), and Devices and Desires (1990), have made it clear that James’s most popular detective reflects the viewpoint of his creator. Like Dalgleish, James can sympathize with the motivations of her suSpects, who often have been victims themselves, while at the same time holding fast to her principles, which demand that evil be punished. As a result, the mystery novels of P. D. James offer a reader pity and terror which are more akin to the emotions aroused by Greek tragedy than the temporary titillation of a superficial detective story.
Admittedly, James is a mistress of the conventions of her genre. She uses those conventions to produce a superbly suspenseful story. For example, as the long list of major characters in Devices and Desires suggests, she is an expert at using the false direction or the red herring. At first, James has a serial killer, who might hit anyone; when he is out of the picture, she selects a victim who is almost universally hated, and for good reason. For a time the possible murderers are almost countless. Then, tantalizingly, James switches to the closed circle pattern, typified by the familiar country house murder mysteries. The number of possible killers seems to be limited to the people attending one dinner party, who alone could have known some important information. Eventually, however, that theory breaks down, and James begins to feed out the clues so beloved by amateur detectives, such as a distinctive pair of shoes, which were taken from the church jumble stock, used in a murder, and thrown out in a vagrant’s temporary refuge. Even the author’s use of point of view is calculated to maximize the suspense. She does not always stay with her detective. Twice, early in the book, she enters the mind of a young woman, on her way to death at the hands of a serial killer known as the Whistler. Very few thrillers can provide episodes more gripping than those two chapters, when her characters, at first unknowing, begin to realize that the person who promises help is going to kill them.
James is also much praised for her use of setting. It is here, however, that her real depth can be seen. Certainly her settings are imaginative and interesting. Yet in all of her novels, they are more than realistic; the Settings also suggest a philosophical ambiguity, a tension between good and evil. Indeed, they provide the symbolic focus for the novels and a key to her own thematic preoccupation. The hospital in The Black Tower (1975), for example, is a place where bodies may heal, but souls sicken; the church in A Taste for Death (1986) is the scene not of redemption, but of murder. The setting of Devices and Desires emphasizes the persistence of desperate conflicts throughout human history, as well as the tenuousness of the future on this planet. The landscape at Larksoken is dominated by a nuclear reactor, which is seen by people such as Rilary Roberts, the Acting Administrative Officer at the facility, as a scientific answer to human problems, and by others, such as activist Neil Pascoe, as presaging the end of human life on this planet. Near the reactor, there is evidence of past conflicts. A ruined abbey and the cottage where a Protestant martyr lived recall the religious turmoil of the Reformation period. Old pillboxes are left from what was expected to be a beach battlefield during World War II. Beyond it all, there is the sea, which for centuries has engulfed mariners within sight of land. Whether they called on the Christian God symbolized by the church spire, or on the god of science symbolized by the towering reactor, Adam muses, they would still be helpless before the forces of nature.
As the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that all the characters have found some god to rule their lives. The ambitious scientist, Dr. Alexander Mair, Director of Larksoken Nuclear Power Station, believes that his own work is of major importance; therefore, worshiping the work, he worships himself. Because of his dedication to that work, however, he will...