P.D James’ bestseller, ‘Devices and Desires’ is unlike any detective/thriller I have read. It is a completely atypical crime story that breaks away from tried and tested detective story conventions. Yet James manages to create an equally thrilling and compelling read.
At the core of the story is a creepy serial woman killer who goes by the name of Whistler. The killings have rocked the fictional Norfolk coast and have scared the women from venturing alone at night. Then the killer strikes at Larkosen- a picturesque town of Norfolk-with one of the female workers at the Larkosen Nuclear Power Station murdered. Adam Dalgliesh of the New Scotland Yard was on a holiday at Larkosen to settle all the affairs of his aunt’s death-including blowing her ashes and taking care of the the fortune and the windmill she bequeathed him. He invariably gets enmeshed in the murders despite Norfolk not being his patch. When a 2nd murder hits Larkosen, the mystery deepens and fresh troubles surface for Terry Rickards, the Chief Inspector of Norfolk in charge of solving the case, who is desperate to find the elusive killer at all costs.
The plot of ‘Devices and Desires’ sounds like the countless detective stories that come packaged in cheap paperbacks. Yet it is vastly different. Firstly, the pace is much gradual. James takes her own sweet time to build the story, to create tension and take it to a thrilling climax. She is as interested in the characters and setting as the plot itself which is why the reader peruses pages devoted to establishing the desolate, wild yet beautiful atmosphere of the Norfolk coast in general and Larkosen in particular and to fleshing out characters who are not merely stock characters but individuals with their own unique viewpoint and thoughtful insights.For ex. Dalgliesh is often depicted as pondering over his melancholic and contradictory thoughts about his aunt. The novel is thus very descriptive which burdens it and thus tends to slow down the story’s pace. This may not be appealing to all kinds of readers especially those who are used to their weekly doses of fast paced thrillers. Nonetheless, the novel is still worth the shot because James makes sure that the reader is both aesthetically as well as sensationally pleased with her descriptions and intricate plot.The depth in characterization and the landscape gives this genre fiction novel a literary touch (which is heightened by several references to works of literature such as ‘Dover Beach’, a poem by Matthew Arnold.
James also creates skillful contrasting moods. One moment the reader is plunged into an anxiety ridden chapter of the Whistler’s to-be-victims’ thoughts and in the next the reader dives into the cool, organized thoughts of Dalgliesh or the thoughts of the other numerous inhabitants of Larkosen. James skillfully depicts the gruesome and horrifying aspects of murder and violence as well as manifests the vicious desires and passions of ordinary humans. She has a deft writing touch that marvelously depicts both with a talented ease.
What is jarring is the sudden burst of fast paced and unexpected thrill close to the end that awakens the reader from the stupor brought on by the book’s lulled pace itself. Here James style of alternating moods begins to fail. Its as if she has realised that she needs to quickly finish the story and reveal the murderer and not go on rambling about Larkosen’s beauty or its inhabitants’ idiosyncrasies. The continuation of the same smooth and lulling pace as the whole story would have been more appropriate rather than thrusting the reader into action and more murders that seem blatantly out of place. They seem to be there only to shock the reader or to create the conventional twists in the story.
Yet, apart from these few unexpected jolts, the actual unraveling does happen in a controlled, casual way almost as if a picnic was being discussed and not a murderer’s confession. ‘Devices and Desires’ is still a good, the narrative powerful and stimulating enough to hook all detective fiction lovers and fans.