RogerBW's Blog

Devices and Desires, P. D. James 27 March 2023

1989 detective fiction, ninth of James's novels of Inspector (now Commander) Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh goes to an obscure headland in Norfolk to decide whether he wants to keep his deceased aunt's house; inevitably, he gets drawn into murder.

Well, a bit. There's a serial killer known as "the Whistler" who may be the same person as someone Dalgliesh dealt with in London (but probably isn't). And then a woman who has made herself annoying to everyone in the local community turns up murdered in the same way – but though she was killed in the Whistler's style, it happend after he had committed suicide in a grotty hotel.

But mostly we get a look into the horrible churning bitter hateful mind of James. One of the more sympathetic characters is a teacher who was hounded out of her job by accusations of racism; there's never any detail, but it's clear exactly how James would feel about anything that could be labelled "politically correct" (or, these days, "woke").

As in previous books, the gravest sins are to have bad taste, or to be ugly and not ashamed of it. People who dare to do either come in for much more criticism than mere murderers, and the most important quality of furniture is that it should be old. This is a character who will turn out to be relatively sympathetic:

She was heavily made up. Two moons of bright rouge adorned each cheek, her long mouth was painted with a matching lipstick and her fingers, blood-tipped talons, were heavy with a variety of rings. Her hair was so glossily black that it looked unnatural and was piled high in the front in three rows of tight curls and swept upwards and secured with combs at the back and sides. She was wearing a pleated skirt topped with a blouse in some shiny material striped in red, white and blue, buttoned high at the neck and hung about with gold chains in which she looked like a bit-part actress auditioning for the part of a barmaid in an Ealing comedy.

(Also, Phyllis Dorothy, I really don't think that you meant that her left cheek had two moons and her right cheek had two moons. "One moon", or "either cheek", or… there are lots of ways you could have written this, and you're proud of your command of English, but you clearly never read this after first draft.)

Everyone is horrible. The men are having affairs; the women are controlling men with sex. (The sight of a pair of naked breasts and an offer of casual sex can instantly remove all of a man's ability to think, it seems.) There's one potentially happy marriage, and even that's parlous. I was reminded of Christianna Brand, who made sure one wouldn't root for the guilty party by making them all horrible. Social workers are horrible because they take female children away from their right and proper job of looking after their younger siblings after Mum has died.

Of course there's plenty of room for a dig at mere detective stories too:

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.

Dalgleish doesn't solve this mystery (at most he points out the flaws in other people's incorrect solutions). He doesn't catch the killer. He's mostly there to be effortlessly better than anyone else. There's more crime, but much less of the actual detection.

In the background there is the local nuclear power station. Wikipedia says the book "deals at length with such issues as nuclear power and its dangers/benefits", but to someone who actually knows something about the subject it all felt desperately superficial; you can sprinkle in terms like "turbine house" or "charge face", but that doesn't hide the fact that the arguments put into people's mouths here are just the utterly standard ones of the day, dulled by endless repetition.

If you want a depressing literary novel about horrible people (though on the bright side, some of them die, which is about the best one can hope for in this world), go for it. If you want a detective story, look elsewhere.

Many people say that this book is James at her best. So I may well not bother to read any more, even though I had set out to get through all of her work as I did with the traditional Queens of Crime.

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Previous in series: Taste For Death, A | Series: Adam Dalgliesh

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