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Devices and Desires by P.D. James

Well, here it is. My first review in several months (not counting reposts). I hadn’t planned to review this novel, but I suddenly felt the urge to do so.

As it happens, this is one of the books in the Top Mysteries challenge I abandoned in 2011. I am no longer trying to read all the books on the lists, but it’s nice just the same to be able to cross one off now and then. Another novel I have been able to strike off the list was Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes, an enjoyable old school murder mystery. Than leaves 65 to go, but I doubt I will ever read them all - there are just too many spy novels on it for my taste.

Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard arrives in Norfolk to spend some time going over his aunt’s personal effects following her death, and to decide what he is going to do with the holiday home - an old converted windmill - he has inherited from her. He is consulted by a former colleague who is now with the local police and is investigating the case of a serial killer in the area. At a dinner party one night one of the guests, who has just discovered one of the killer’s victims, reveals details of the murder unknown to the public so that when one of the guests is later murdered by that method and the serial killer couldn’t have done it, it is clear that one of the dinner guests has to be responsible for the copycat killing. But which one?

Genre: Crime, psychological detective story
Year of publication: 1989
No. in series: 8
Type of investigator: Police
Series detective: Adam Dalgliesh
Setting & time: Norfolk, England, 1980s

This is an unusual detective story. Not only because the series detective doesn’t take part in the investigation (in fact, he doesn’t even nose around on his own) but also because of the diverse themes and threads that come together to make the story. James deftly weaves into the warp of the basic story of two homicide investigations the weft of the cares and problems of the various characters, suspects, witnesses and policemen alike, and issues like the different ways in which people grieve, the threats and benefits of nuclear energy, family power struggles, ego, social justice and injustice, love and hate. This all comes together in a richly nuanced and complex narrative that is much more than just a detective story. It is a psychological novel before it is a detective novel, and all the more interesting for it.

The characters are richly drawn and keep revealing facets of themselves throughout the book. In the course of the book the private thoughts and public actions of all the main characters are examined, but without much clue-dropping. You come to care about them or dislike them as if they were real people and all the way from the revelation of the copycat nature of the main murder and nearly to the end you wonder which one of them did it and how it will end for them.

James contrasts the impulse-driven actions of the serial killer with the cold, preplanned and controlled actions of the copycat. One is all about gratification and doesn’t care who his victims are as long as they’re female while the other has a motive and only one particular victim in mind. The unspoken question is: whose crime is the worse?

Verdict: One of the best crime novels I have read in and age and a half. 4 stars.


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