Friday, March 17, 2023

Classic Fridays--Details and Digressions: PD James' Devices and Desires (1989), Book the First

When as a young teen, around 14 or 15, I decided that I wanted to start reading "Great Literature," I went looking for the longest book I could find, which turned out to be American author Theodore Dreiser's sprawling 1925 sociopolitical tract,  An American Tragedy.  The prose was unmemorable, but the plot itself, about an ambitious young man trying to achieve to American dream who ends up on trial for murder, grips.  (The book was filmed in 1951 as A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, all of whom were at their peak beauty at the time.)  I suppose one could almost call An American Tragedy a crime novel.  After all at about 225,000 words it's not all that much longer than some of the later sprawling PD James crime novels, like Devices and Desires.

PD James had been publishing mysteries for eighteen years when she finally hit it really big in 1980 with a non-series crime thriller, Innocent Blood.  Personally this is one of my least favorite James novels, but it struck a chord with the public, especially in the United States, which had proved up till then a bit more resistant to her charms than the UK had.  James did not even succeed at finding an American publisher for her first and second detective novels--Cover Her Face (1962) and A Mind to Murder (1963), until 1966 and 1967, respectively. I have to wonder whether she resolved to write her third detective novel, Unnatural Causes (1967), because she finally was getting published in the States, the holy grail of British crime writers.  Maybe not though--after all she did have a significant day job!

In any event, after the success of Innocent Blood, James, now a bestselling novelist--became afflicted, like her role model Dorothy L. Sayers before her, with novelitis: the urge to write a crime novel that really had Things To Say about society, just like a mainstream novel.  James' next crime novels--The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982), A Taste for Death (1986) and Devices and Desires (1989)--were Really Long Books.  I don't know about Skull, an extravagant, long-winded Gothic pastiche and the second of the two Cordelia Grey mysteries--but Taste and Devices are not all that far off 200,000 words by my count, which at that time were extraordinary lengths for mystery novels.  Both feature James' series sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, who had not headlined one of her novels since 1977; and they still stand, I think, as the best reviewed crime novels of her career, with many critics avowing that James was not only the new "Queen of Crime," but that she had, yes, transcended to crime fiction genre like a levitationist, writing mysteries that that rose above "mere puzzles" and possessed the merits of True Literature.

Personally I never much liked A Taste for Death.  James does have things to say about transcending the lower class strata in Britain, through her character of striving, humbly born--and rather earnest and dull--police sergeant Kate Miskin, along with a quite unlikeable brother and sister who are suspects in a double murder at a church; yet I never felt the book was much as a mystery, nor did I find the characters, with a couple of exceptions, all that compelling.  (I quite liked the churchgoing sixty-something spinster and the lower class street waif boy whom she befriends, to be sure.  This is a poignant story line, but frustrating for me because I think the characters could have used a novel--a non-criminous one--all to themselves.)

"PD James does it again!"
--Larry King

I recall seeing a paperback copy of Devices and Desires way back in 1991 that carried a blurb at the top of the cover from mundane media personality Larry King: "Brilliant...wonderful.  P. D. James does it again!"  Americans of my age doubtlessly recall the late Larry King's long-running CNN television interview show on Saturday nights, along with nighttime radio show and his daily column in the once ubiquitous American "McPaper" USA Today.  In this column Larry would string together, like a string of imitation pearls before swine, various thoughts, like "You know, you just can't beat a good hot dog!" or "There's nothing like a lazy Sunday." or "I think Blondes really do have more fun."  I thought at the time, well it shows how James has made it that she has caught Larry King's eye ("P. D. James has done it again!"), but does this really mean she is writing Great Literature, let alone good mysteries?  

I had started reading mysteries again in 1991, but I was reading my new discovery John Dickson Carr and Christies I had missed and Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.  I did, however, go back and read the older PD James mysteries from the Sixties and Seventies and I quite liked most of them.  Some I thought were brilliant.  When I did read a new James--Original Sin (1994)--it struck me as well-written but too long and its plot seemed egregiously derivative of a Nicholas Blake detective novel.  (I know of two other bloggers who were struck the same way as I by the Blake connection.)  

Over the years I slogged through the succession of James' bloody murder behemoths--A Certain Justice (1997), Death in Holy Orders (2001), The Murder Room (2003), The Lighthouse (2005)--and found that her crime writing was yielding diminishing returns.  The characters, settings, situations had become formulaic--James formulaic--without offering much real ingenuity in plotting.  "Good prose" could only cover up so much in a mystery, in my view, and some of James' prose was getting rather starchy anyway.  There's lots of plot in her books, yes, but in the later books it's lacking the fleet genius of Christie and her clever company or even that of the earlier James.  Like many other longtime writers James had fallen into repeating herself and lacked the same zest of early invention.  

I still have yet to read The Private Patient (2008), James' final Adam Dalgliesh novel--I have held off for fifteen years now--and I had never gotten around to taking up Devices and Desires--that is, until now.  Martin Edwards says this is the best James crime novel.  Is he right?

Well, I have made it through the first three books (yes, books, I said; D&D is like the Crime Torah or something) amounting to 200 pages, about forty percent of the way.  And, despite all the author's details and digressions--I have been rather enjoying it so far.  I'm trying to give it something of the benefit of the doubt by reminding myself that some of the narrative devices, like the long flashback character sketches and the diatribes about "political correctness," were comparatively new for her at this time.  I shall try to go into more detail next week.  For now, take this thousand word introduction as Book the First, shall we say.  So sayeth the Tramp.


  1. Was the single mother really illegitimate, or was it only her baby who was born out of wedlock? Anyway, I enjoyed your review more than I enjoyed the few James novels I attempted to read. I don't know if it was the gloom, the snobbery, the gore or the conservatism (or all of the above). I wanted to like them, she was obviously a very good writer, but it didn't happen. On the one hand, they could be uncomfortably realistic, but on the other hand-- a policeman-poet WHO SELLS? Give me Jonathan Creek and HIS windmill, they were a lot more fun,

    1. LOL, I thought of Jonathan Creek and that windmill when I was reading it. Have you read any of her earlier works. They are pretty gloomy too, but clever and not so lengthy.

      Whoops, I didn't phrase that one bit well, did I?

    2. Corrected that. That was a 4700 word piece written in one day, these things will happen! ;)