Devices and Desires

”She’s not just a mystery writer. She’s a novelist.” That’s what certain reviewers — the kind who look down on mysteries or feel embarrassed about liking them — love to say about P. D. James. Unfortunately, around 15 years ago, James apparently started listening to her most high-toned admirers. Just about the time that P. D. James attained critics’-darling status, her books began to lose the edge and urgency that kept all those literary textures — the psychological rumination, the seven-layer atmosphere — from bogging things down. The writing remained a page-by-page pleasure. And, thanks in part to television versions of vintage (1960s) cases for James’ moody hero Adam Dalgliesh, bestsellerdom was a sure thing through the 1980s. But the slightly ponderous Death of an Expert Witness (1977) was followed by the belabored preciousness of The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) and the talky sprawl of A Taste for Death (1987).

As you might expect from the portentous title, Devices and Desires (weighing in at 433 pages) continues this inflationary decline. Commander Dalgliesh, soulful as ever, seeks a quiet retreat from Scotland Yard in remote Norfolk — only to discover the body of Hilary Robarts, administrator at the local nuclear-power station. Is Robarts the latest victim of a serial killer who’s been working the neighborhood? So it seems at first. But it’s soon obvious that Robarts was strangled instead by one of her many enemies: There’s a foolishly contrived lineup of suspects that’s hardly worthy of James’ earnest, brooding close-ups. Meanwhile, little is made of the promising power-station setting, which lacks the memorable workplace dynamics of the hospitals in early James novels — or even the laboratory in Expert Witness. Most disappointing of all, Dalgliesh himself remains almost entirely on the sidelines while the bulk of the investigation is carried out by a sour yet uninteresting Norfolk policeman.

Can so many well-turned paragraphs and craftsmanlike chapters really add up to a bad book? They can and they do, when the motor’s missing. C+

Devices and Desires
  • Book