Review of ‘Devices and Desires’ by P D James

The novel remains my favourite Dalgliesh story, possibly as it is the first one that I read in the series of 14 novels. And post a steady diet of the popular Agatha Christie’s thrillers, the book seemed to have a feel of what would emerge if we could combine Christie and Austen.

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Marsden as Inspector Adam Dalgliesh                        Image Courtesy – bol.com

Indeed the book is a murder mystery thriller but then it is more than that – it is a well-crafted novel rich in strongly delineated characters who let the reader peek into their heart and their lives.

“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”

The Book of Common Prayer

We are introduced to Adam Dalgliesh, a poetic detective and a senior member of the Scotland Yard. He is leaving London to spend a fortnight visiting Larksoken on the Norfolk coast to seek some solitude in order to come to terms with the bereavement of his loving aunt and manage the rich legacy she bequeathed to him. Dalgliesh, we learn, is a sensitive and professional policeman who is no less efficient or effective in his work because he is a poet at heart and inherits a spiritual legacy from his father who was a rector. It is a fascinating combination that James uses deftly to voice her personal experience of angst in duelling the need to stamp out crime through the policing system while trying to deal with the affected people is a civil and humane manner.

It is known that a psychopath serial killer targeting young women is at work on the Norfolk coast but eventually this turns up to be sidelight as the story focusses on the lives of people living in the shadow of a modern Nuclear Power Plant.

James narrative of crime and its horror is delivered in anesthetized tenor that belies the brutality that is part of modern-day life. Early in the novel, James shares a horrific description of cruelty; ‘At the heart of the universe there is cruelty. We are predators and are preyed upon, every living thing. Did you know that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds, piercing the weak spots in their armour? Then the grub grows and feeds on the living ladybird and eats its way out, tying the ladybird’s legs together.Whoever thought of that has, you have to admit, a peculiar sense of humour. And don’t quote Tennyson at me.’ 

But James is not being pessimistic or depressed in her narrative – she just wants to convey to us without any sentimentality the base nature of the world gone mad on chasing material pursuits wherein it would be foolish to wander unarmed like the naïve babes in the wood. You need to be mentally strong and secure to be gentle as a person coping with the vicissitudes of daily life  – Dalgliesh seems to be her pet tribute to such a character.

Indeed apart from the murder mystery, the book dwells into all kinds of issues faced by people in their modern and fast paced lives. We have Rickards, the detective inspector, battling professional failures along with a having to deal with upwardly mobile mother-in-law who does not disguise her contempt for his inept social skills and lets no occasion pass where she can remind him that her daughter could have done better for herself. And to think we thought it was only in India that we marry the family and not just the person. Man’s sense of being a social creäture has such trying and tragic implications.

We have the Blaney kids being looked after by a fiercely protective father who is not well off and sorely grieving the loss of his wife. He aggressively wards off people from invading his life with care and sympathies for he knows that they will swamp him if he were to just let his guard down.

Talent too is no protection if one is not emotionally and mentally sorted. And so we learn that the scientific genius Toby Gledhill committed suicide unable to satisfactorily resolve his ambivalence towards nuclear power, his personal life and career.

We have Jonathan Reeves play the character of a gauche and an awkward young man who sorely discovers his inadequacies and the pain of being manipulated to achieve the desired ends. That he shows some initiative and clumsily discovers the machinations is a story in itself.

James is in full force when she introduces a quaint character of Jonah, the homeless vagabond, who gives a mordant take on modern civilization.

James gives us a run on the key social issues : equality of men and women in relationships (a delectable episode is where Dr Mair feels offended when his PA refuses to follow him to his new job), modern relationships like being a gay or a lesbian, terrorism, struggle of single parenting, crumbling of personal faith, ordinary pettiness of hearts, racism, provincialism, social snobbery, modern policing, role of technology etc.

But the pièce de résistance is the nuanced and balanced take on Nuclear Power nearly twenty-five years ago. Mindful of the dilemma and controversial nature of the claims and counter-claims, she choses to tread the middle path where far from the right answers being known possibly even the right questions are still being discovered. In today’s age of internet trolling on even the most trivial of issues, one has to admire her for not favouring any side on the issue but only objectively presenting the narrative and leaving us without a final answer on the debate.

As to the tale of fraternal love and bonding between the two strong individuals Dr. Alex Mair and Alice Mair, I do not even want to attempt to decipher it. It is best left for the reader to discover and devour when he reads the novel.

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