There is an awful lot going on in P.D. James’s 1989 novel Devices and Desires — maybe too much. Either way, it’s quite a book.
This was her eighth novel featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh of the Metropolitan Police of New Scotland Yard, an introspective cop who’s also a noted poet. However, it might be a misnomer to call the book a Dalgliesh mystery.
He’s there at the beginning of the book and its end, and he pops up at various points in the story. In fact, it’s Dalgliesh who finds the body of murder victim Hilary Robarts.
But he’s not the investigator of that crime nor of a series of others known as the Whistler murders. He’s on the remote Larksoken headland on the Norfolk coast to close up the affairs of his late maiden aunt and decide what to do with her home, a windmill built in 1825.
She had been a leading ornithologist, and, in addition to the mill, she’d left him, her only surviving relative, three-quarters of a million pounds. (At the time, that was the equivalent of $1.2 million, or about $3 million in 2023 dollars.)
Dalgliesh is more than a bit unsettled by that fortune suddenly coming into his hands, but even more disconcerted by the publicity — all very positive — over his newly published second book of poetry. Indeed, the main reason for this vacation has been to escape that attention.
So, in contrast with other Dalgliesh novels, he is a bystander in Devices and Desires, a witness to some of the action who goes about his business while detectives work to identify the criminals.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Dalgliesh does not solve any of the crimes, nor that the solutions that police arrive at aren’t as airtight as they might hope.
“Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”
As a witness to some events and the discoverer of Robarts’ body, Dalgliesh learns what it’s like to be questioned — however gently, he is after all a Commander — by the police.
Asked what he was doing that night out on the headland, he tells Chief Inspector Terry Rickards, “Walking, thinking.” To which, Rickards says, with a bit of an edge — these two have a history — “Walking and thinking.”
Which leads Dalgliesh to ruminate on what he might have told Rickards — that he’d been thinking about his aunt and the men who had loved her and the fiancé who had died in World War II….
and how, as a boy, I hated the false romanticism of that stupid poem about great men leaving their footprints on the sands of time, since that was essentially all that most of us could hope to leave….I was thinking how little I had known my aunt and whether it was possible to know another human being except on the most superficial level, even the women I have loved. I was thinking about the clash of ignorant armies by night, since no poet walks by the sea at moonlight without silently reciting Matthew Arnold’s marvelous poem….
Ruminating is what lone walkers along the edge of the sea do, and any lone walker, interviewed by police, could give a similar string of thoughts although the investigators wouldn’t want to hear them and the walker wouldn’t want to reveal anything so personal.
Yet, Dalgliesh’s ruminations go to the core of Devices and Desires in referencing Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which ends:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
James’s novel is about a world without certitude, peace or help from pain, and, despite glimmers of affection and goodness, her characters move through the story “as on a darkling plain” amid alarms and the meaningless, blind clash of armies.
Not about solutions
Most mystery novels are about solutions — the puzzle is presented to tantalize the reader to keep turning the pages to find out how it is solved. Not so much, Devices and Desires.
Rickards and his team do arrive at a solution to the Robarts murder, but the reader knows that it’s incomplete, that, even though it identifies the killer, it’s based on false assumptions. The same is true for the violent deaths of two other characters. The police read the deaths one way, but they’re working with only some of the facts as well as with some misconceptions.
The police are blundering about the story with the blindness of the armies in the Arnold poem.
Dalgliesh, because of his particular situation, knows some of the facts that the police don’t know, and he guesses some others. Not all, though. Not by a long shot.
“The devices and desires of our own hearts”
The novel’s title comes from the line “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,” from the Morning Prayer service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. And its story is about the plans that human beings make in order to fulfill their yearnings, plans that cannot help but fail, people being people.
Devices and Desires isn’t about Dalgliesh, but about the fraught emotional lives of eleven main characters, including the chief detective Rickards. This is the “awful lot” that’s going on in the book that I mentioned at the beginning of this review.
Well, actually, there’s even more going on due to a quirky collection of minor characters who, in their walk-ons, shine a bright light of just plain oddness on the events taking place.
Such as the tramp Jonah who, subsidized by his brother, spends his year wandering around England, living a life of total simplicity (except, of course, for the regular infusions of cash). He pops up wearing the shoes of the murderer, but, during his time on stage, he dominates the scenes with his larger-than-life self-possession and chutzpah.
“He surveyed their busyness, unsmiling”
And, then, there are three babies who aren’t very essential to the adult goings-on in the novel, and yet serve as a kind of a Greek chorus.
Such as Anthony Blaney, maybe a year old, whose mother died of cancer six weeks earlier. His fourteen-year-old sister Theresa is taking care of him and two older twin girls, and Dalgliesh first sees him as the children are making their long way home on foot from a shopping trip.
In contrast to his sisters, Anthony was over-clad, a bundle of leggings, jumper and a padded jacket topped with a woolen helmet with a bobble pulled well down over his forehead, beneath which he surveyed their busyness, unsmiling, like a stout imperious Caesar.
Anthony doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. But the reader has a suspicion that he can guess at all the confusions, alarms, pain, uncertainties and lack of peace that he has found himself born into.
That’s the story of Devices and Desires. Yes, there is an awful lot going on in the novel. But that’s only natural.
James, after all, is trying to capture the confusions, alarms, pain, uncertainties and lack of peace in each of her character’s hearts — and in those of her readers.
Patrick T. Reardon