I'm beginning to see a possible theme in the writings of P.D. James: she starts off with the indication that the mystery will go in one direction, only to turn the whole idea around after the reader has gotten into the story and send the mystery in another direction. She did this in Innocent Blood, and she does it once more in Devices and Desires. It makes for a truly complex mystery and a great read.
Devices and Desires opens with the murder of a young girl -- the fourth murder by a serial killer who is littering the Norfolk coastland with the gruesome deaths of women. And P.D. James doesn't merely tell the reader that there is a murder: she lays it out in detail, exploring the character of the victim and the moments up to her death. She does this a second time when the serial killer finds his fifth victim, and the reader finds himself hoping beyond all hope that the serial killer will be found and brought to justice. And then...it's over. The serial killer is suddenly discovered at a seedy hotel, having committed suicide because he couldn't control his gruesome urges any longer. Not an hour later, another dead body is found, but it turns out that this woman not a victim of the serial killer but of a copycat killing, made to look like the work of the serial killer. The last death becomes the focus of the mystery, because the police know at once that there are very few people who could have known enough details about the serial killer's habits to have committed the crime. And no doubt this new murderer had hoped to pin it on the serial killer, not realizing that the timing would fall just short of this possibility.
What is so interesting about the approach that P.D. James takes is that she isn't merely stringing the reader along for the purpose of writing a clever story. She's bringing each victim to the reader as a person, and not merely as one of a list of victims. These women who are murdered by the serial killer have lives and stories too; they aren't merely names and numbers to be disregarded in favor of the main plot of the story. I can imagine that as a writer P.D. James thought very hard about this. Wanting to write a story about a copycat killer, she decided that she couldn't simply toss aside the other victims without mention, and as a result she brings them to life and makes each death significant and painful for the reader. All life is sacred. No person and his (or her) story is expendable.
The details of the plot itself are pretty complex, and there is no point in trying to weed through all of the characters and their motivations. This is one of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, although in this case he is one of the suspects, because he found out about the serial killer's methods and could conceivably have committed the crime. I'll save you the trouble of wondering: he didn't commit the crime, but being on the suspect side for once gives him a new appreciation for interrogation and for appreciating actions that people take, often suspicious but generally harmless. In addition, there is an underlying theme of a nuclear power station that has generated controversy in the neighborhood where the murders have taken place, but I like that James never takes a stand on the idea of nuclear power (which must have been especially controversial when the book was first published in 1989), choosing instead to portray the station itself as a neutral figure with the various emotions or "desires" swirling around it. Within the immediate plot of the story, there is no real danger that comes from the power station. It turns out that the true danger lies in the fallible character of human beings.
This is a great story, and I think any mystery lover would appreciate its complexities. I don't recommend reading it at night, however. I did that several times, and each time had a very tough time falling asleep. Serial killers dragging lone women off deserted roads on the misty English coastline -- a true recipe for bad dreams. Time of day notwithstanding, I definitely enjoyed the story and recommend it highly.
Year of publication: 1989
Number of pages: 466