P. D. James: Devices and Desires

Devices and Desires
P. D. James
First published in the UK 1989, Faber and Faber
This edition 1974, Warner Books
ISBN: 0446359750
466 pages
Score 4/5

This is a souvenir of my recent trip to San Diego. I’d given up finding a second-hand bookstore (not shop – I went native), until I wandered into the actually-not -unpleasant Horton Plaza and found a pop-up shop called Crown Books at the top. There, behind all the shiny new books, was a great little second-hand section. You could say California is a long way to go to buy a P. D. James book, but I was delighted to find something from the CWA list of 100 best crime novels.

James’ series character Adam Dalgliesh has inherited a converted windmill in Larksoken, a remote Norfolk peninsula described as being between Cromer and Great Yarmouth. A huge nuclear power station, presumably modeled on the real-life Sizewell B, dominates the peninsula. The station also dominates the lives of the novel’s characters. The arrogant Alex Mair is Director, living in a nearby cottage with his cookery-writer sister Alice. Other staff members include Miles Lessingham, Mair’s PA Caroline Amphlett, and Hilary Robarts, the Acting Administrator. Living nearby are the Blaneys, a chaotic family still reeling from the loss of the mother; Meg Dennison, a teacher who has been hounded out of the profession by a race scandal; and anti-nuclear campaigner Neil Pascoe and his caravan-mate Amy. All of the characters are strongly and sympathetically described, but Hilary Robarts is the key figure in the first part of the book. She has antagonised both local residents and station staff in a series of arguments and legal wrangles in a way which so clearly signposts her as a victim that I don’t think it is a spoiler to share this with you.

East Anglia’s real-life nuclear power station, Sizewell B (image from EDF Energy website)

There is another force at play on the peninsular – the Whistler, a serial killer** who has been preying on women in the area and who has so far stumped the local police led by Inspector Terry Rickards. There are parallels drawn in the text between the power station and the Whistler:

‘I can imagine him out there in the darkness, watching and waiting. It’s that sense of the unseen unknowable menace which is so disquieting. It’s rather like the feeling I get from the power station, that there’s a dangerous unpredictable power out on the headland which I can’t control or even begin to understand.’

The investigation that dominate the mid-section of the book are carried out by Rickards and his Sergeant, Oliphant. For my money, Rickards is a better character than Dalgleish. He is insecure in his ostensibly happy personal life, nervous about a child on the way, envious of Dalgliesh and pre-emptively envious of the ambitious Oliphant.

The plot plays out very slowly, accelerating suddenly towards the end and taking an unexpected left-turn in the final section. Until that point there isn’t much story per word, so it is a testament to James’ ability as a writer that this is still an enjoyable read.

There’s a homogenised quality to James’ prose. She’s the John Lewis* of crime fiction: reliable, conservative, regular, reassuringly calm. Her writing can be brilliant, especially the descriptive passages:

‘In contrast to his sisters, Anthony was overclad, a bundle of leggings, jumper and a padded jacket topped with a woollen helmet with the bobble pulled well down over his forehead, beneath which he surveyed their busyness, unsmiling, like a stout, imperious Caesar.’

Her series investigator Dalgliesh exactly reflects the calmness and detachment of James as a narrative voice. In a recent interview she was asked:

Q: Were you annoyed by the Guardians description of Adam Dalgliesh as “lugubrious”?
A: Not annoyed, as that is obviously how they see him, but I would rather describe him as reticent.

He is certainly one of those fictional policeman that must have been born at a senior rank. You just can’t picture him breaking up a pub fight in Stepney or attending a domestic disturbance in Peckham. I don’t imagine they let him near the pepper spray.

If I have a criticism of her style, it is that the ‘Dalgliesh tone’ frequently infects the thoughts and speech of all of her characters. Take this, in a chapter centred on a teenage girl:

‘And beyond it, like a silken scarf, lay the wide untrammelled sea.’

Or this, out of the mouth of the intelligent but earthy Sergeant Oliphant.

‘”Better to grab a pair too large than too small, a soft shoe rather then unyielding leather.’

My main reservation regarding Devices and Desires is Dalgliesh. He doesn’t play an active role in the investigation. His musings are irrelevant to the plot and don’t contribute much to the themes of the novel either. His perspective on the community is largely irrelevant as James handles her other characters and their points of view so well. You could make a fairly strong case that he was simply parachuted into the plot at the last minute.

Final destination: Not a keeper for me, and not in good enough condition to resell, so: charity shop.

*If you’re not in the UK, John Lewis is one of our more upmarket department stores.

** Note the early use of this term.

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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5 Responses to P. D. James: Devices and Desires

  1. Rich – I’m glad you found a decent bookstore. I didn’t realise you were in San Diego; I live about 52 km from Horton Plaza actually. Thanks for your well-written review of this novel. I especially like the way you describe Dalgliesh. I’ve heard him described as “the last gentleman detective” and that may not be far off the truth. I find his character a little more enigmatic than I would like, truth be told, but I like him.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Thanks Margot. I’m now very envious of where you live… San Diego was my best work trip ever. Coincidentally, having just read your profile, I was at en educational software conference.

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      • Oh, that is a Twilight Zone co-incidence! I’m glad you had an enjoyable trip; I really am. But living in the San Diego area is much different to visiting it…

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  2. Dalgliesh’s reticence carries through the entire series; you should see him trying to tell the woman he loves that he wants to marry her! I had the good fortune to interview James a few years ago and she told me she always starts with the setting as she feels it imbues the entire story she decides to tell. This one obviously has the nuclear power plant as its nexus. She’s used a psychiatric clinic, a private museum, a health clinic, and a remote abbey for other settings. As James is now over 90, I fear we may have read our last of Dalgliesh~

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  3. Pingback: Pick of the month: July 2012 | Past Offences

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