Devices and Desires by P D James

Shelf Indulgence review

In this guest edition of Shelf Indulgence, author Daniel Sellers reviews a 1989 classic by P D James.

Poet detective Adam Dalgliesh is on the scene, clearing out his late aunt’s windmill home. The local officer in charge of the Whistler investigation makes use of Dalgliesh’s presence, drawing on his knowledge of murderers — and his insights into the lives of the headland’s residents, many of whom have links to nearby Larksoken nuclear power station. Tensions abound in the isolated community, with resentments focused on Hilary Robarts, the power station’s acting administrator. When Hilary’s body is found on the beach late at night, it’s assumed she’s the Whistler’s latest victim. But is she?

P D James, winner of a Diamond Dagger and an Edgar Grand Master Award, said she was inspired by setting, and described conceiving this novel standing on a lonely beach near Sizewell, further down the coast in Suffolk. With its bleak setting, and the ominous power station on the edge of the tormented sea, it’s an intensely atmospheric tale of how human frailty can lead men and women to do evil. The motive for murder is disturbing and original. My skin creeps to recall it.

As ever, James’s writing is precise, lucid, and sometimes lyrically beautiful. Of all her powerful novels, to me, this study of the “devices and desires” of the human heart is her finest.

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