Devices and Desires

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1877 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The characters in Devices and Desires are more contemporary and diverse than those in James's previous novels. In general, adverse...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Taste for Death was described as James's most ambitious work. Devices and Desires is shorter, less complex, and more...

(The entire section is 249 words.)