Picks and Pans Review: Devices and Desires

updated 02/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by P.D. James

There is a point, very near the end of James's new Adam Dalgliesh novel, where the action swings so swiftly in the direction of Ludlum-style espionage fiction that devoted readers' hearts will surely sink. Could the greatest living mystery writer be capable of such a cheap defection to another genre? Of course not. This brush with wild-eyed terrorism is simply a well-calculated diversion, a brief detour from the proper homes and civilized savagery that are James's own, comfortable terrain.

In Devices and Desires, Scotland Yard inspector Dalgliesh—no less depressed than when last he surfaced—arrives in the fictional town of Larksoken, on the northeast coast of Norfolk, England, for a vacation in the cottage he has inherited from an aunt. Once a sleepy resort, Larksoken is now noted for its controversial nuclear power station, a coldly modern fortress that eerily complements the barren landscape. In this setting the predominant sound is of time ticking.

It is ticking a little faster these days, thanks to an extremely busy serial killer. James opens her book with the Whistler's fourth victim, Valerie Mitchell, who "died because she missed the 9:40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb's Marsh"; a few chapters later, his fifth victim, Christine Baldwin, sips her second glass of sherry, unaware that she has "exactly thirty-five minutes to live."

The Whistler's crimes are grotesque and odiously sexual. They are also distinctive, so that when middle-aged Hilary Robarts is found on the beach bearing the signature flourishes of his murdering style, the case seems shut. Except, of course, for the fact that the Whistler was discovered, dead, only a few hours before.

Who killed Hilary? Even Dalgliesh himself is a suspect. After all, he recently attended a party where one guest, having just viewed another Whistler victim, offered a full-scale description. But then Hilary, a shapely bully who held a high-level job at the power station, could quite easily have been done in by any number of people: Dr. Alex Mair, her boss and reluctant boyfriend; his cookbook-writing sister, Alice; antinuke activist Neil Pascoe; angry artist (and Hilary Robarts's tenant) Ryan Blaney. As local detective Terry Rickards—and Dalgliesh from a proper distance—work at solving the case, James weaves a dazzling array of psychological profiles into a gently ironic examination of human life and the "relative value" we ascribe to it.

Devices and Desires is a superb achievement, the work of a mature writer who displays no signs of giving up—or growing lazy. (Knopf, $19.95)

From Our Partners