Devices and Desires, by P.D. James

Devices and Desires is the second P.D. James novel I’ve read or listened to in the last month. This novel is at least as good as the first one, The Murder Room; both novels are long with lots of well-developed characters, both are thoughtful and philosophically-minded, and both fit the description Stefanie gave in a comment to an earlier post: James’s novels aren’t so much mystery stories as stories with mysteries in them.

In fact, the novel itself makes this very point in a passage where a minor character, stuck in a difficult conversation, wants to get back to the detective novel he has been reading:

He wanted to get back to Inspector Ghote, Keating’s gentle Indian detective who, despite his uncertainties, would get there in the end, because this was fiction: problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter.

In a way James is writing this kind of novel, and in a way she is not. Yes, the mystery is solved in the end, truth is revealed, and things are set to rights. But an air of mystery still lingers over the story, not about who murdered whom, but about why people do what they do and about what it’s possible to know of the desires and the longings of others. While by the novel’s end the reader knows the full story — or the facts at least — the detectives involved don’t know everything and never will. There’s a gap between law and justice and the complexities of human interaction.

Devices and Desires is interesting structurally for two reasons; one is that Adam Dalgliesh, James’s protagonist, is only a small part of the book and isn’t the main investigator on the case. He’s on holiday in Norfolk and just happens to be a witness to events related to a murder case. He nearly crosses the line from police officer to suspect, as he is the first one on the scene after a murder, and he finds himself having to decide what to share with the other officers and what information to keep in confidence. He’s in a quiet competition with Inspector Rickards, the chief detective on the case, to see who can put the facts together most convincingly. This tension between Dalgliesh’s role as a regular citizen and his job in law enforcement allows James to consider just how effective — or ineffective — police work can be, just how much an investigation can miss or misconstrue. Dalgliesh himself learns how unpleasant it is to be interrogated and suspected.

The novel’s structure is interesting also because there are two murderers; the first one is found relatively quickly, and the focus of the novel then shifts to the second, who, it turns out, is the real source of the novel’s mystery. This means that the “mystery” part of the novel doesn’t appear until the book’s second half. This seems to be a “Jamesian” technique, or least I can say that the two novels I’ve read both take their time getting to the center of the action. She slowly establishes the book’s atmosphere and introduces the reader to her characters before the narrative tension tightens.

The setting is crucial to this novel (as it was also in The Murder Room); it takes place near the sea on a quiet, nearly-deserted headland where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s habits or proclivities are secret. The beautiful setting is marred only by the presence of the Larsoken nuclear power station, a source of controversy amongst some of the area’s residence and a locus of both hope and fear; it provides much-needed jobs for the local population, but it is also a potential threat — the book takes place shortly after the Chernobyl disaster.

This is a book to savor; it offers many pleasures, from an absorbing story to a cast of memorable characters to meditations on death, justice, and human nature. Here, for example, are Dalgliesh’s thoughts as he watches over a dead body waiting for the police to arrive. It’s a passage that brings me back to my opening thought about the limits of detective work and of mystery stories:

He thought: In youth we take egregious risks because death has no reality for us. Youth goes caparisoned in immortality. It is only in middle age that we are shadowed by the awareness of the transitoriness of life. And the fear of death, however irrational, was surely natural, whether one thought of it as annihilation or as a rite of passage. Every cell in the body was programmed for life; all healthy creatures clung to life until their last breath. How hard to accept, and yet how comforting, was the gradual realization that the universal enemy might come at last as a friend. Perhaps this was part of the attraction of his job, that the process of detection dignified the individual death, even the death of the least attractive, the most unworthy, mirroring in its excessive interest in clues and motives man’s perennial fascination with the mystery of his mortality, providing, too, a comforting illusion of a moral universe in which innocence could be avenged, right vindicated, order restored. But nothing was restored, certainly not life, and the only justice vindicated was the uncertain justice of men.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

4 responses to “Devices and Desires, by P.D. James

  1. It’s been years since I read any James. I remember especially enjoying this one. As always, you’re making me want to re-visit an author.

  2. I really need to dig around in my bookshelves and find this one. I read the first one in the series but don’t know why I haven’t caught up. It looks like I have a great read ahead of me!

  3. This sounds wonderful. It’s been awhile since I picked up a James book, I think I will have to read one, maybe this one, soon.

  4. Emily — it would be worth it, I’m sure! I can see myself re-reading James and certainly reading more of her work.

    Iliana — I should go back and read the first one, instead of skipping around like I have been!

    Stefanie — I highly recommend it; I’m so glad I’ve discovered James!

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