Friday 28 November 2014

Not to be Forgotten Books

No Forgotten Book from me this Friday. Instead, as a tribute to P.D.James, I'd like to focus on one of her not to be forgotten books, and also on her versatility as a writer. The book in question is Devices and Desires,and it first appeared in 1989. This was just after I started reviewing crime fiction, and I remember rhapsodising over the book in a little magazine called The Criminologist, which usually focused on factual stuff about crime, but took me on for a number of years as its solitary reviewer of fiction.

Devices and Desires remains my favourite James. much as I admire books like Death of an Expert Witness, Innocent Blood, A Taste for Death and...well, many others. The plot is strong, but what has always stuck in my mind is the wonderfully atmospheric setting. Particular places inspired her fiction time and again, and here the headland on the Norfolk coast, with its nuclear power station, its ruined abbey, and its mysterious serial killer, is wonderfully well evoked. I treasure my signed copy.

Incidentally, the book I'm currently writing is not in any sense intended as a homage to James, and is very different from her work, but it too concerns a remote coastal setting, where dark deeds take place in the shadow of a nuclear power perhaps there was just a smidgeon of subconscious influence at work.

One point that often is, but should never be, forgotten about James is that she was extremely versatile as a writer.She took great pains over her work, and that is why she was far from prolific in terms of the number of books that she wrote. But consider her range. Adam Dalgliesh is, of course, her most famous character, but she also created one of the best female private eyes - Cordelia Gray. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a brilliant title, and a good book. And what about her final novel? Death Comes to Pemeberley saw her moving into Jane Austen territory, and the result was another bestseller adapted for television.

She was fascinated by true crime, and co-wrote an excellent study of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, as well as investigating afresh the classic case of Julia Wallace. She wrote a book about crime fiction which is not, in my view, as in-depth as most of her work, but nevertheless highly readable. And when she ventured into science fiction, Children of Men was so successful that it was filmed. Her short stories were few and far between, but they are splendidly fashioned and well worth seeking out. All this combines to form a remarkable span of literary achievements. One more reason to salute this remarkable writer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this nice entry Martin. I've not read as many books by PD James as you did, but I'm glad to read your opinion about about Devices and Desires, which is, so far, my favourite of her novels.

Daniel said...

Devices and Desires is my favourite of her novels. The setting is operatic: all those isolated, passionate personalities stuck on the dark headland between the two monuments of power, one ancient (the abbey), one modern and terrifying (the power station). I also love the moral dilemmas that the characters are struggling with throughout the story: the abortion, the anti-nuclear-power campaign, the affairs, and the central, chilling theme that the murder plot hinges on: that of paying off a long-owed debt.

Wonderful stuff. A true literary crime novel. About to read it again!

Martin Edwards said...

Jose, Daniel, many thanks. Yes, it really is a grand book.

Christine said...

Yes, this is the one I've found most memorable. She really had a wonderful sense of place.