James, P. D. Devices and Desires.

NY: Knopf, 1989.

No matter how popular her novels featuring Scotland Yard’s Adam Dalgliesh are, her fans don’t really read them for the mystery plot alone. They read them because they’re first-rate, thoroughly involving stories about a (frequently large) group of fully developed characters and the interaction among them.

If the murder mystery was all James was interested in, she could crank that out in maybe a hundred pages. But this book runs more than 460 pages and you won’t put it down till you’ve finished the last one.

As it happens, Commander Dalgliesh isn’t even on the job this time, and much of the narrative isn’t even from his point of view. His Aunt Jane has recently died and left him a fortune of significant size — plus her windmill with attached cottage on a headland on the Norfolk coast. Adam takes some time off and goes up there to relax, to scatter her ashes, and to figure out whether he wants to keep the place for holidays, or what. Just up the coast looms Larksoken Atomic Power Station, the director of which, Alex Mair, lives nearby with his sister, Alice, a noted author of cookbooks. Hilary Robarts, the plant’s Acting Administrator, also has a home in the vicinity and owns yet another small cottage which she’s insisting on selling — even though it means evicting a young widowed artist and his four children. Also not far from Larksoken is an anti-nuclear activist living in a caravan (what we yanks call a “trailer”), which he shares with a teenage single mother and her infant son. And then there’s the middle-aged ex-teacher who was run out of London by the forces of Political Correctness and who now looks after the aging, retired vicar and his wife at the Old Rectory nearby. Finally, there’s DCI Rickards, through whose eyes we see much of the action, and who has been going crazy trying to find “the Norfolk Whistler,” a serial killer with a growing string of homicides behind him. And when Robarts is found murdered on the beach in a Whistler-like manner, he’s determined to solve the case. And since it’s his patch, Dalgliesh — who stumbles upon the body — is careful not to interfere. He’s only just a witness this time, not the investigator, even though Rickards can’t help running ideas past him since he’s handy.

This may be James’s most complicated story up to 1989 and the mystery itself is pretty good — but the larger story of the headlanders and the connections among them is even better, and very satisfying.

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