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Taut and Terrifying Mystery

P.D. James's latest detective novel is darkly psychological and heavily laden with symbolism

EVERYBODY knows that detectives don't take vacations. Crime lurks even in the most peaceful of settings. And that goes for Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James's commander of New Scotland Yard and published poet. In ``Devices and Desires,'' James's 11th novel, Dalgliesh drives up to a small town on the East Anglian coast to both tidy up his aunt's estate and take a breather from the public attention caused by his latest book of poetry. A colleague asks him to just keep an eye on a little problem of a serial strangler in the area. P.D. James fans know ``The game is afoot.''

He does not find a peaceful setting. Larksoken, a small town on the northeast coast of Norfolk, England, is throbbing with present and past discord. It's a brooding place, with the memory of a martyr burned at the stake, a suicide off the top of the local nuclear reactor, a tragic childhood incident that still reverberates in two lives.

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At first it looks as if this is a mystery about an elusive strangler, who attacks women after they have run out of gas or miss their bus and end up alone on a desolate road. The women are terrified of running into the Whistler, as the strangler is called because of the odd sound some people hear at the scene. No one knows what he looks like. So when victims see a woman in a trenchcoat holding a leash with a dog trotting nearby, they're greatly relieved. One ``ran smiling to the horror of her death.''

At this point, the plot takes an abrupt twist, temporarily throwing off James's reader-sleuths. When Hilary Robarts, an abrasive power-plant official, is found dead, it just looks as though she's No. 6. But while we've been given clearly marked clues that her demise would be welcomed by many, it's nonetheless surprising when Ms. Roberts is killed just after the strangler commits suicide, leaving a confession note.

Hated for various and likely reasons by most of the town, Hilary makes an intriguing villain as well as victim. She's a possessive mistress who could ruin her lover's career, a callous landlady who is trying to evict a recently widowed artist and his four children, a vindictive plant official who's suing an impoverished environmentalist for libel. She's so bad that it's not hard to imagine all of the above helping to do her in, as a trainful of revenge-seekers did in Agatha Christie's ``Murder on the Orient Express.''

But James is not Christie. She's more darkly psychological, exploring themes of incest, sexual power, and sacrificial victims of many types. Her characters are crisply defined and original. A stolid detective is anxious because his soon-to-deliver wife is in the clutches of her mother. The unconventional painter is careful always to be dressed around his teenage daughter. And the women are forceful. One is a strong but gentle teacher, who fled a racially divisive school system that insisted she say chalkboard instead of blackboard.

The book is heavily laden with symbolism, ancient and modern butting up against each other. Dalgliesh's inherited windmill presents a peaceful contrast to the giant Larksoken power plant, which generates nuclear power and controversy. The ruins of a Benedictine abbey act as the scene for a tryst.

The only place where James falls flat is a bizarre subplot having to do with German terrorists. Perhaps it may ring more true to European readers, but the boat coming out of the fog with its high-beams turned on seemed like a familiar '40s movie. After that detour, some momentum is lost, and when the killer turns out to be a likely suspect, it's a bit of an anticlimax.

But that aside, ``Devices and Desires'' is a taut and sometimes terrifying good read - vintage P.D. James.

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