P. D. James
P. D. James; drawing by David Levine

February 1990: the literary editor of a British newspaper writes to The Spectator, protesting about what he sees as an elitist stranglehold on literary prizes. “Booker judges have ignored the merits of authors like William Boyd, Graham Greene, P. D. James.” The reader who does not keep up with the politics of the review columns might well be puzzled. Doesn’t P. D. James write best-selling detective stories? What is she doing in the company of Greene? When did the categories of fiction become so confused?

Those commentators who would elevate James’s books to the status of literary novels point to her painstakingly constructed characters, her elaborate settings, her sense of place, and her love of abstractions: notions about morality and duty, pain and pleasure, are never far from the lips of her policemen, victims, and murderers. Others find her pretentious and tiresome; an inverted snobbery accuses her of abandoning the time-honored conventions of the genre in favor of fancy up-market stuff. Writing in The Spectator (October 7, 1989) Harriet Waugh wants P. D. James to get on with “the more taxing business of laying a tricky trail and then fooling the reader”; Philip Oakes in The Literary Review groans, “Could we please proceed with the business of clapping the darbies on the killer?” (October 1989). Wherever P. D. James’s books are discussed there is a tendency, on the one hand, to exaggerate her merits; on the other, to punish a genre writer who is getting above herself. A feature of the debate is that familiar, false opposition between different kinds of fiction—the belief that pleasurable books are some-how slightly shameful, and that a book is not literature unless it is a tiny bit dull.

Phyllis Dorothy James should not really be a contentious figure; she is, as profile writers love to point out, a grand-mother. Born in Oxford in 1920, she is a former civil servant, and she has been a magistrate and a governor of the BBC. In A Taste for Death, the fat, ambitious, and messy novel that precedes the present one, she contrives to provide a self-portrait. One of her characters, a photographer, is commissioned to take pictures of writers; in an uncharacteristically sly and witty passage, James sets before the camera “a buxom grandmother, noted for her detective stories, who gazed mournfully at the camera as if deploring either the bloodiness of her craft or the size of her advance.”

In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) James gave brief play to a young detective called Cordelia Gray, but her chief creation is Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. Although he is a thorough professional, Dalgliesh is also, like most detectives dreamed up by Englishwomen, a thorough gentleman. Urbane, elegant, and brave, he has a parallel career as a published poet, and garnishes his speech with references biblical and literary. The only son of elderly parents, he had a lonely upbringing in a country rectory; his mother died when he was fifteen. He has lost his own wife and newborn son; they were the victims of a “chance in a million” medical accident. Sometimes Dalgliesh seems too perfect to live, and too finely spiritual to care much about dying. At the beginning of The Black Tower (1975) he has been falsely diagnosed as terminally ill:

It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy.

In A Taste for Death he is hardly less enervated:

The poet who no longer writes poetry. The lover who substitutes technique for commitment. The policeman disillusioned with policing.

P.D. James’s new book is set on the Norfolk coast, in that windswept and lightly populated area of England remarkable for its fine but frequently neglected churches. Its title comes from the Book of Common Prayer: “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own heart.” James’s preoccupation with religion softens the harsh realities in which her books deal. To perversion and blood lust, to carnage and cut throats, she brings the sensibility of the communicant Anglican. If there is no justice in this life—and in a P. D. James novel, there sometimes isn’t—it is a comforting thought that there will be justice in the next.

The book’s first sentence has the Jamesian mark. It is precise, direct, and opens beneath the reader a chasm of malign coincidence:

The Whistler’s fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9.40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb’s Marsh.

The Whistler is a serial killer with a grisly line in postmortem handiwork; and what he whistles, as he leaves the scene of the crime, is a few bars of an obscure hymn. He operates in the area of the Larksoken nuclear power station, a concrete monolith that shares a lonely headland with the ruins of a Benedictine abbey.


As it happens, Dalgliesh has just inherited property in the neighborhood. An elderly aunt, his only remaining relative, has left him a converted windmill and a sum of money—enough money to allow him to quit the Yard, if he wishes, and devote himself full time to poetry. He is a happier man than the brooding and exhausted creature we left at the end of A Taste For Death. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy still supplies his casual reading, but there are hints that he might be falling in love—perhaps with his young colleague Inspector Kate Miskin—and he has broken his creative silence with a collection of poems called A Case to Answer.

Dalgliesh is published by Herne & Illingworth, a plausible and familiar outfit who have offices in Bedford Square; and at a plausible and familiar publishing party, their cookbook editor asks him to deliver a set of proofs to Alice Mair, an author living in Norfolk. “I wouldn’t really wish to trust these proofs to the post,” she says; and whereas in real life an author would reply, “Norfolk is large; send them by a courier service,” Dalgliesh takes possession of the precious papers, and is led by this thin and shameless plot device to the persons at the heart of the drama.

Dalgliesh is invited to dinner by Alice Mair; among others, he meets her brother Alex, who is the director of the power station, and Larksoken’s acting administrator, an abrasive young woman called Hilary Robarts. A place at table is kept for another Larksoken employee, who bursts in at a late hour to announce that he has found the Whistler’s latest victim; shocked, and later drunk, he reveals more than is tasteful about the killer’s modus operandi. So when in due course Dalgliesh is taking a walk on the beach and comes across a corpse, the people at the dinner party—in addition to a local teen-ager acting as a waitress—are suspects. For the new death is that of Hilary Robarts herself, and although her murder has all the Whistler’s trademarks, the serial killer cannot possibly be responsible; he has committed suicide in a seaside hotel some hours earlier.

Hilary Robarts’s enemies extend beyond the dinner party. There is Ryan Blaney, a drunken artist and widower who lives with his four children in a ramshackle cottage that Robarts owns. She is trying to evict him: motive enough there, perhaps? Also on the scene are Caroline Amphlett, Alex’s personal assistant, an ice-cool blonde who has started an unlikely love affair with a boring, blotchy young scientist; an antinuclear campaigner whom Robarts is suing for libel; a waif called Amy, who lives with the protester in his caravan, who sometimes receives old postcards from London, and who has no job, no welfare entitlement, yet a small but mysterious income.

P. D. James’s handling of the nuclear power issue is knowledgeable and cautious. Larksoken dominates the Norfolk landscape as its churches once did, but Alex Mair thinks it transitory, “both the science and the symbol.” Yet while it lasts, it purveys a message

both simple and expedient, that man, by his own intelligence and his own efforts, could understand and master his world, could make his transitory life more agreeable, more comfortable, more free of pain.

We may assume James to be in broad agreement with Alex, since she frequently uses her characters as mouth-pieces; but in this novel nuclear power is a device rather than a desire. In inventing Larksoken James has created only a modern version of the closed society—the island, the country house—in which to entrap her large and diverse cast. The headland itself is a closed world, its inhabitants able to monitor one another’s comings and goings; all of it can be overseen by the godlike Dalgliesh, from the top story of his windmill. But within this world the power station is a smaller world still, enclosed by its security systems and the demands that it places on its personnel, isolated as they are by arcane, dangerous knowledge.

Devices and Desires is a leisurely and confident book, a considerable feat of organization. It is a much better book than its predecessor, for it does not have the monotony of tone of A Taste for Death that makes it hard to read more than fifty pages at a time; and it is much more successful in keeping the reader in suspense, for in the last book the guilty party was set up early on as a highly unpleasant sociopath. There is some strikingly good writing in Devices and Desires, and a great deal of competent unmemorable workaday prose. P. D. James has cultivated a style that seldom teases or questions the reader, and does not question itself. Her descriptive writing leaves nothing unsaid; she has not mastered the art of the judicious omission. Certainly her digressions are part of the pleasure of her books, and give them dignity and weight. The patinas and aromas of a country kitchen, the wineglass pulpit in the church at Salle, all receive more loving attention than does the plot itself, and from time to time an image that is both felicitous and congruous, embedded in an otherwise unremarkable passage, will surprise:


Before them, at the edge of the cliff, crumbling against the skyline like a child’s sand castle rendered amorphous by the advancing tide, was the ruined Benedictine abbey. He could just make out the great empty arch of the east window and beyond it the shimmer of the North Sea, while above, seeming to move through and over it like a censer, swung the smudged yellow disc of the moon.

Her dialogue, on the other hand, is weak. Speakers are hardly differentiated, and all of them are too fluent, given to speechifying, articulate in an unlikely way about their deepest emotions, their most troubling and troublesome thoughts. When the Whistler is still on the loose, Meg Dennison describes her feelings thus:

When night falls and we’re sitting there by the fire, I can imagine him out there in the darkness, watching and waiting. It’s that sense of the unseen, unknowable menace which is so disquieting. It’s rather like the feeling I get from the power station, that there’s a dangerous unpredictable power out on the head-land which I can’t control or even begin to understand.

The characters are always ready with an obliging label for their own feelings. The discoverer of a corpse says, a few hours after the event, “Looking back, my emotions were complicated, a mixture of horror, disbelief and, well, shame.”

This stilted stuff is the work of a writer who has never found her characters’ voices, and who has not thought it necessary to distinguish their observations and sentiments from her own. But set against that, there is the immense trouble she takes to provide the most minor character with a detailed curriculum vitae. Sometimes the digressions are carried to irritating lengths; when a pathologist turns up to examine Hilary Robarts’s mutilated body, we are given a quick rundown on his tastes in music and women, when all we want to know from him is how long she’s been dead. Here, the accumulation of detail does little but hold up the action.

Yet the crablike excursions around and behind the characters can also be felicitous. Jonathan Reeves, the colorless young scientist who has been taken up by Alex Mair’s assistant, is a marginal character, but P. D. James subjects his cramped and stifled childhood to her detailed scrutiny:

His father had worked for fifty years in the carpet department of a large store in Clapham…. The firm let him have carpets at less than cost price; the off-cuts…he got for nothing…. Sometimes it seemed that their thick-pile wool and nylon had absorbed and deadened not only their footsteps. His mother’s calm response to any event was either “Very nice,” equally appropriate in an enjoyable dinner, a royal engagement or birth or a spectacular sunrise, or “Terrible, terrible, isn’t it? You wonder sometimes what the world’s coming to,” which covered events as diverse as Kennedy’s assassination, a particularly gruesome murder, children abused or violated or an IRA bomb. But she didn’t wonder what the world was coming to. Wonder was an emotion long since stifled by Axminster, mohair, underfelt.

So there you have the post-1945 lower-middle classes of England: their interior décor, their philistinism, their peculiar self-contained fortitude. It seems ungrateful to ask if there is something extravagant and unnecessary in the character building, when it is so convincingly done; James has a keen eye for the little social markers the British employ and enjoy. P. D. James’s ability to distill and bottle the essence of Britishness—or what seems to be the essence of Britishness—must surely be a factor in her popularity in the US; and in a nation increasingly self-conscious about its “heritage” and national character, it may well be a source of happiness to her readers at home.

Of course, detective fiction in Britain has always been class-conscious. A murder in a slum is not an object of remark; but a murder in a country house is worth a book. If we assume—and it’s the traditional assumption—that the affluent middle classes lead well-conducted, orderly lives, murder has great shock value; and well-bred persons with everything to lose, persons of position and wealth, are likely targets for blackmailers, and are more likely to indulge in complicating, face-saving cover-ups. Besides, when we stumble across the body in the library, find Lady Bountiful slashed and clobbered beside her objects d’art, we can console ourselves that wealth did not bring her happiness. Useless to convict the classic detective story of coziness; it was meant to make us feel better, and coziness was its heart.

P. D. James does not give us the bloodless corpses of a more genteel age—her images are graphic, though never gloating—and she aims to run the gamut of society, from the lord to the tramp. She is most comfortable among the middle classes, and is not good with the lower orders. She uses her workingclass characters to provide humor—of which, otherwise, there’s not much in her books.

Yet in every matter—emotional, social—Dalgliesh is the arbiter of taste. Idealized and idolized by his creator in the most old-fashioned way, just as Dorothy L. Sayers idolized Lord Peter Wimsey, Dalgliesh is everything a woman would wish a man to be. He will rush into a burning room to save someone with whom he has slight acquaintance; but he can also cook up a comforting cassoulet. He is reserved, self-contained, needs nobody—but he is sensitive to the feelings of others. Another policeman in the novel, Rickards, is less attractive and more fallible than Dalgliesh. Rickards is in charge of the local police investigation. He lacks both Dalgliesh’s probing intellect and his social savoir-faire; his young wife has a “dressing table, kidney-shaped,…trimmed with pink-and-white flowered voile, the pretty matching set of ringstand and tray…neatly in place.”

One takes the point: here’s more of the lower middle-class’s prissiness and tackiness. Yet in real life you would have to go back a few years to find a dressing table like that. P. D. James takes immense trouble to put her characters in their contexts, to convey to us the mundane details of their lives, but it is a qualified sort of social realism she employs. Sometimes the text is abuzz with current concerns. A neighbor of Alice Mair’s, for instance, is a former London schoolteacher, who was driven from her job by a ferocious race-relations lobby after she refused to call a blackboard a “chalkboard.” Elsewhere, one feels social changes have passed the author by: does any young woman these days give up work in anticipation of becoming pregnant?

In one important respect, however, James is against coziness. Throughout Devices and Desires she seems to be engaged in a conscious rebellion against the neatness of detective fiction. When the ex-schoolteacher seeks spiritual counsel from the elderly clergyman for whom she keeps house, she finds him absorbed in one of the Inspector Ghote stories of H. R. F. Keating; and the priest is impatient to be done with her difficult questions and get back to the gentler, more certain world that the book offers him. Ghote, says P. D. James,

would get there in the end, because this was fiction: problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter.

A P. D. James book does not leave its readers with any similar comfort. The mere solution of the crime will not put the world to rights. Any solution will in itself contain areas of ambiguity, and guilt will be well distributed between murderer, victim, and bystanders. In this latest book, the crime itself seems less important than the effect it has on those left alive; it brings out their interesting vulnerabilities and perplexities, and causes them to engage in pages of moral debate. Murder, as James remarks in A Taste For Death, is “the first destroyer of privacy”; and in the wake of murder, the people left alive lay bare their souls. “At the heart of the universe there is love,” says one character; another counters, “At the heart of the universe there is cruelty.”

James is so absorbed in this debate that she wraps up her plot in a way that some readers may find unsatisfactory. Caroline Amphlett proves to be a member of a terrorist group operating from Germany; the witless waif Amy, an animal liberationist, has been drawn into a plot to take over power stations throughout Europe. This subplot is worked in late, proves to be only a diversion from the identity of the real murderer, and does not in itself convince. In A Taste for Death James gave a young female character a set of left-wing, vaguely subversive views, perhaps reasoning that such a device adds another layer of menace; here she repeats the trick, on a bigger scale but in a similar unsophisticated way. The reader finds that motives he had taken to be personal were in fact ideological, and may justifiably grumble that he has no way of keeping up with the ploys of an author who is prepared to toss in the notion of an international terrorist ring without some little advance warning.

When the story is at its most domestic it is at its most plausible, and the true murderer does have personal motives. Disappointingly, they are motives the reader has already begun to guess at, but no doubt the author does not care about that; the revelation of bloody deeds and who did them is secondary to the revelation of the murderer’s selfish, irreligious, amoral view of life, and her “intellectual and spiritual arrogance.” Throughout the book the reader knows more than the police, for he is privy to the secrets of the murderer’s childhood and the details of her relationship with her brother. The reader certainly knows more than Dalgliesh; Adam is not part of the local force, is not officially attached to the investigation, and he is kept on the side-lines by his own sense of propriety and by the antagonism of Rickards. The identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader in a conversation between Alice and another character, in which Dalgliesh plays no part; so it is impossible to see how he arrives at the truth, and one can only attribute it to the free-floating intuition with which his creator has so thoughtfully provided him.

The truth may be that it is not the specifics of detection that interest P. D. James at this stage of her career; it is the nature of the detective’s job. On the scene of the crime, the police watch and listen as others express their shock and grief—they share in other people’s lives, but at the same time stand back and observe them, ready with the notebook. Dalgliesh’s misgivings about his profession are misgivings he shares with his author. Policemen, like novelists, have to find the shape and form in random and meaningless events; like policemen, novelists rebuke themselves for coldness of heart. As a tool for getting at the truth, police work has its dissatisfactions and limitations; so does crime fiction.

By the end you know everything, or think you do. Where, when, who, how. You might even know why if you’re lucky. And yet, essentially, you know nothing. All that wickedness, and you don’t have to explain it or understand it or do a bloody thing about it except put a stop to it.

The detective closes his file; the author closes her book; both are exhausted, both dissatisfied. Where does this dissatisfaction lead?

The same Philip Oakes who takes P. D. James to task for her indirect methods agrees that she is justifiably praised for her “ability to flower within the discipline of a genre.” But this discipline is now a constraint. In Devices and Desires signs of strain are evident. The murderer is a character whom James has brought us to respect, but whom she—and we—in the end must find morally repulsive. Subtleties are on offer—too many subtleties to be contained within the format of murder investigation-solution; and within the adipose mass of this novel is a thinner, sharper, wiser book trying to fight its way out.

Some years ago, James wrote an interesting novel called Innocent Blood, a psychological thriller with no Adam Dalgliesh, no Cordelia Gray. Her admirers will wonder if she will now provide another such book, a book not subject to the stultifying rules of detective fiction. It seems almost an insult to apply the label “promising” to an author who is in her seventieth year and who has written eleven novels; but her books constantly promise what they do not perform. Once the rules of a chosen genre cramp creative thought, there seems no reason why an able and interesting writer should accept them. It is fashionable, though reprehensible, for writers to prescribe for other writers. But perhaps the time has come for P. D. James to slide out of her handcuffs, kick off her concrete boots, and stride onto the territory of the mainstream novel.

This Issue

April 26, 1990