Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653
James has the ability of bringing to life even the most peripheral of her characters, sometimes with only a few lines. In the beginning of the book, some early victims of the Whistler, the mysterious killer, are introduced and do not reappear, since no investigation is reported. One such example...
(The entire section contains 653 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Devices and Desires study guide. You'll get access to all of the Devices and Desires content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
James has the ability of bringing to life even the most peripheral of her characters, sometimes with only a few lines. In the beginning of the book, some early victims of the Whistler, the mysterious killer, are introduced and do not reappear, since no investigation is reported. One such example is Valerie Mitchell, a fifteen-year-old who missed her evening bus and is more afraid of her father's reproaches than of the killer. One can feel her fright and imagine her father's wrath in the brief incident preceding her death.
James's characters are normally a mix of good and evil, and even the murderer is someone who is guilty of only the one crime around which the story turns. In this book, however, James offers several characters that are largely positive. One such character is Theresa Blaney, the teenage girl who cares for her motherless brother and sisters. She shields her father at any price and, despite her strict religious upbringing, is willing to lie to protect him from suspicion in the crime. With childlike simplicity she communes with her mother in the ruins of a medieval abbey and thus derives the strength to continue her difficult tasks. Meg Dennison is another positive character. Widowed after a short but happy marriage and unjustly accused of racism in a London school, she comes to Larksoken to find peace and a little breathing space. She is a companion to the elderly Copleys, Mr. Copley having retired as vicar of the local church. She seeks companionship in Alice Mair, who in contrast seems to see life's darker side. Meg is not sure of her own religious beliefs but takes comfort in praying twice daily with the Copleys. She is also slightly attracted to Adam Dalgliesh, and he to her.
Dalgliesh, the perennial hero of James's novels, is peripheral to the investigation but very much a part of the plot. He comes to Larksoken because of an inheritance received after the death of his aunt and hopes to spend a few quiet vacation days. Unfortunately, he stumbles upon the body of the murder victim, and ultimately it is he, instead of the delegated police investigators, who learns the truth. Ever the competent detective, he is also a sensitive human being, still mourning the loss of his wife and child. People seem drawn to him with their confidences, even though this murder is not his case. Inspector Rickards, who resents him for a rebuke given years ago, still visits his home to discuss the investigation of the murder.
In contrast to these positive figures, the victim, Hilary Robarts, seems to have had few friends. She was the mistress of Alex Mair, the director of the nuclear power plant, and hoped desperately to marry him and have a child. If she could not have him willingly, she would not hesitate to use other means. People at the plant respected her intelligence and her capabilities, but no one really liked her; many had motives for killing her. Although arrogant, she was physically attractive. In fact, Miles Lessingham blames her for Toby's suicide. Independent, she was not afraid of the danger of swimming alone at night. She chose to flaunt danger and thus became a victim.
The characters are so defined that all have a relationship to the murderer, and many to one another. The nuclear power plant is the center of the action, and most of the characters either work there or are linked to someone who does. Hilary, the victim, is connected to several — Alex, Miles Lessingham, Neil Pascoe, the Blaneys, to mention only a few. Alex Mair and his sister Alice are also central because of their dinner party, which is attended by Miles Lessingham, Hilary Robarts, Meg Dennison, and Adam Dalgliesh. The Whistler, a mysterious killer who is found dead himself, and whose technique inspires Hilary's murderer, is an eerie figure who looms large over the entire book.