Devices and Desires

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

While on holiday and tying up the loose ends of his late aunt’s estate, Adam Dalgliesh quite literally stumbles over a murder victim and is plunged into a strange web of secrecy and hatred that links the inhabitants of Larksoken. The victim, Hilary Roberts, was the acting administrative officer at...

(The entire section contains 2890 words.)

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While on holiday and tying up the loose ends of his late aunt’s estate, Adam Dalgliesh quite literally stumbles over a murder victim and is plunged into a strange web of secrecy and hatred that links the inhabitants of Larksoken. The victim, Hilary Roberts, was the acting administrative officer at Larksoken Nuclear Power Station and was enthusiastically disliked by most of her coworkers and neighbors. When it becomes clear that Hilary cannot possibly the final victim of the Whistler, the notorious serial killer who has been terrorizing Larksoken and the surrounding communities, the local police have many other suspects to investigate, including Hilary’s boss and former lover, the artist Hilary was trying to evict from a cottage she owned, and the antinuclear activist Hilary was suing for libel.

James shows herself to be a master storyteller, combining the coolly analytical viewpoint of Dalgliesh with a graceful and poetic prose style of her own. She skillfully presents the events of the novel by shifting the narrative among her various characters, thus enabling the reader to view the murder case and its impact on Larksoken from a variety of perspectives. By placing Dalgliesh in the unusual role of interested bystander instead of chief investigator, James seems to be inviting the reader to take on the role of protagonist, and she conveys information to the reader that Dalgliesh and the other investigators can never know. In steering away from the traditional whodunit formula, James is able to explore the psychological dimensions of the murder case more fully and thus creates a more compelling work of fiction.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 4, 1990, p.1.

London Review of Books. XI, December 7, 1989, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 25, 1990, p.1.

Maclean’s. CIII, March 16, 1990, p.67.

New Statesman and Society. II, October 6, 1989, p.41.

The New York Review ofBooks. XXXVII, April 26, 1990, p.35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, January 28, 1990, p.1.

Newsweek. CXV, February 19, 1990, p.66.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVI, December 1, 1989, p.48.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 10, 1989, p.1244.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, January 21, 1990, p.7.

Devices and Desires

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1877

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 not put Hilary Roberts into the place he will soon vacate, a position for which she is not suited, even though she will otherwise threaten his career. As for Hilary herself, she is obsessed with the desire for a child, and she wishes to marry Alex not for love, but in order to have the baby which she feels he owes her.

Several of the characters in Devices and Desires believe themselves to be motivated by principle. Neil Pascoe is an antinuclear activist; his girl friend Amy Camm is an animal rights activist; and Caroline Amphlett, Alex’s secretary, proves to be a terrorist, supposedly committed to human rights. The most sympathetic characters in Devices and Desires, however, are those who are more concerned about other individuals than about the causes which so often, as the Anglican Prayer Book suggests, mask the selfish “devices and desires of our own hearts.” Alice Mair is one of these characters. She is totally devoted to her brother. Eventually Dalgleish learns that the cause of that devotion goes far back into the Mairs’ childhood; however, whatever the psychological bond which produced Alice’s feelings, the reality of her love cannot be doubted. Nor can Theresa Blaney’s love for her father and for the younger children in her family. Just a child herself, she has been mothering and protecting all of them since the death of her own mother. Meg Dennison, too, is a character dominated by the love of others. Having left her profession because a new school administrator emphasized verbal liberalism rather than real love of students, Meg has become a housekeeper for an elderly retired clergyman and his wife, a kindly couple to whom Meg has become deeply attached. In her loneliness, Meg has also turned to Alice, who she says is the kind of close woman friend for whom she had always hoped. As a realist, however, James cannot insist that the capacity to love selflessly will protect one from danger. Indeed, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the very fact of their devotion to others endangers all three of these characters, as well as making things much more difficult for Adam, who must penetrate the deceptions which are motivated by their concern for others.

With the doomsday reactor looming over evidences of past battles and with growing evidence of recent cruelty and hatred in the lives of their seemingly civilized neighbors, Meg becomes increasingly troubled. Again, James represents one answer with a place, the Old Rectory, where Meg lives with the elderly couple. There the old prayers are said, as they have been for centuries; there the old verities are restated, as they are when Meg brings her doubts to the rector. Finally, however, the answers he provides are not enough for her, and she leaves, concealing her dissatisfaction. If the Old Rectory, or traditional Christianity, cannot seem to solve the problems posed by the nuclear reactor any more than it did those suggested by the Martyr’s Cottage or the wartime pillboxes, it does strengthen Meg in two ways, which in time she comprehends: It insists that there is indeed a moral standard in the world, and it further demands that at some point Meg leave off her self-examination and take responsible action. When she determines on her own course, she can understand the similar act which had made her a widow: Her husband had saved a drowning schoolboy whom he disliked and who later turned out badly. Now Meg knows that human beings cannot force the future. What she heard at the Old Rectory was what her husband knew: One does the right deed, and leaves the rest to Providence. Later events would seem to exemplify the Old Rectory interpretation:

Meg’s life is saved by a sudden change in the heart of the murderer, which could well be called an act of Providence.

The Christian element in James’s work is evident, too, in her theme of redemption. Although she emphasizes the fact that cruelty produces cruelty, sometimes generation after generation, as in the case of the Whistler and of Hilary Roberts’ murderer as well, James also provides instances in which the causal link of evil is broken. For example, Terry Rickards, the Chief Inspector for Norfolk, harbors resentment against Adam Dalgleish, who once slighted him; Rickards is also furious with his pregnant wife’s domineering mother, who took advantage of the Whistler threat to get her daughter away from home. During the course of the novel, Rickards evidently forgives Dalgleish, and comes to consider him a friend; after his wife’s return and the birth of their child, he even forgives his mother-in-law and suggests they name the baby for her. Ryan Blaney changes, too; when he nearly loses Theresa, he realizes how much she and his other children mean to him, and he abandons his selfish grief in order to look after them. There are several other instances of the power of redemption in the final chapters of the book and in the epilogue; perhaps the most significant of all, however, is Meg’s decision to move into the Martyr’s Cottage, which has been haunted, though also perhaps purified, by death. This decision implies an acceptance of all that both she and Adam know about the world: that it is ugly, cruel, contentious, and perhaps doomed; that generation after generation, human beings deceive and murder other human beings, perhaps out of emotional necessity but, more terrifyingly, with a cold-blooded intellectual justification; and that, even for the best of mortals, it is very difficult to distinguish true virtue from the devices and desires of their own selfish hearts. Given that knowledge, and given the unpleasant events through which Meg has just lived, her decision to take over the Martyr’s Cottage, physically to restore it and spiritually to let it be redeemed, is truly an act of faith. If the mysteries of P. D. James can be said to be optimistic, it is only because such final acts have come after her best characters, like Meg and like Adam Dalgleish himself have found their difficult way through a very real darkness.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 4, 1990, p.1.

London Review of Books. XI, December 7, 1989, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 25, 1990, p.1.

Maclean’s. CIII, March 16, 1990, p.67.

New Statesman and Society. II, October 6, 1989, p.41.

The New York Review ofBooks. XXXVII, April 26, 1990, p.35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, January 28, 1990, p.1.

Newsweek. CXV, February 19, 1990, p.66.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVI, December 1, 1989, p.48.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 10, 1989, p.1244.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, January 21, 1990, p.7.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

The characters in Devices and Desires are more contemporary and diverse than those in James's previous novels. In general, adverse criticism of this novel hinges more on its plot than on its character, accusing James of combining too many different genres — the crime novel, the detective story, and the thriller. One critic fails to see any signifying pattern "amid the plot's chain reaction of false leads, dead ends, subverted logic, and clumsy comings and goings." Another writes: "Like the strangler, James goes immediately for the throat. But after grabbing the reader, she steadily loses her grip. The compelling, complex but straightforward mystery begins to disintegrate; tensions slacken . . . James, usually a keen prober of the psyche and especially gifted at isolating homely detail, lets stylization bury her stylishness." Another critic, on the contrary, sees "an artfully constructed, beautifully written story of flesh and blood individuals in time and place."

This novel is a bit melodramatic, in its inclusion of the killings of the Whistler, which are related to the main plot only because of the "copy cat" nature of the murder. In fact, critics inclined to find fault with the novel recognize the parts dealing with the Whistler as some of the best scenes.

James's sense of place normally revealed through her descriptions of the Georgian architecture of London, is here focused "on an imaginary headland on the northeast coast of Norfolk." James warns her readers not to expect to recognize its topography, but she has nevertheless created a real landscape. Dalgliesh's trip to the headland reveals landmarks that are developed with the plot:

He was driving now across the open headland towards the fringe of pine trees which bordered the North Sea. The only house to his left was the old Victorian rectory, a square, red-bricked building, incongruous behind its struggling hedge of rhododendron and laurel . . . to the north the broken arches and stumps of the ruined Benedictine abbey gleamed golden in the afternoon sun against the crinkled blue of the sea.

Ever interested in buildings, James presents Martyr's Cottage, "a substantial two- story, L-shaped house standing to the east of the track, with walls partly flint and partly rendered, enclosing at the rear a courtyard of York stone which gave an uninterrupted view over fifty yards of scrub to the grassy dunes and the sea."

Scudder's Cottage, the home of the Blaneys, is by contrast "small-windowed, picturesque under its tiled, dipping roof . . . fronted by a flowering wilderness which had once been a garden . . . between grass almost knee-high bordered by a riot of unpruned roses."

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