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"Devices & Desires" by P.D. James

Oct 12, 2016 | Books

There’s a serial killer on the loose in the Norfolk headland called Larksoken. (Only in England can you have towns with names like that.) The Whistler abducts and kills young women walking alone at night and the town is terrified. But about halfway through the book, the Whistler is found dead. By his own hand. So, who killed this last woman? Obviously, a copycat, who didn’t know the Whistler was dead.

But the thing is, this supposed suicide is actually a murder. “There were no preliminary cuts visible,” which means he killed himself with one stroke, “and that single act of annihilating violence must, Dalgliesh thought, surely have taken more strength that was possible from the childish hand…” He later tells the officer in charge of the case, “He obviously isn’t our man. I didn’t for a moment suppose that he would be.” Why, then, is the search for the Whistler over? And if, in fact, Dalgliesh’s conclusions are not accepted by the officer in charge, why isn’t anything more said about why Dalgliesh is so sure of them?

There are several other plot lines that are left hanging. And more that are higher improbable. And other things that a good writer shouldn’t do. This was the worst one to me: The guy who has the most impact on how everything plays out was such a minor character, it took me a while to remember who he was.

About two-thirds of the way through, it did get interesting. There are about five perfectly viable suspects for that last murder, the copycat one. I did find it interesting to see how that went. The one who did it, then kills him or herself (I don’t want to give it away), which makes sense the way it is presented to us. But part of the murderer’s motivation was based on a tale told at the beginning and never really made clear even then. Somehow it worked nonetheless. I actually kind of liked the symmetry of it.

But then there’s this whole huge national security subplot that comes up right at the very end of the book. Huh? Where’d that come from? It seemed clear to me it was just a way to remove two of the suspects. In fact, the whole book just had the feel of not being planned out very well. When Ms. James found herself in a spot, she simply manufactured another subplot, or one might call it an author’s device. (Cheap joke, I know, but I couldn’t help it. Also, I couldn’t figure out what else the title had to do with.) I’m not saying I’m right, but that’s how it felt to me.

This kind of English drawing room murder mysteries seem to take so long to read. They almost plod, no matter how good they are, and this one wasn’t that good. And this one plods for over 400 pages. The flip side of all that plodding, though, tends to be very well-drawn characters, as these were. But characters should not just be very clear, they should be sympathetic. You should care about them. There were only a couple of characters in this story that I liked.

It’s not a bad book. But if you have another one to read, I’d go with that one.hat one.

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