Books

The Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux

Writing a novel about writer’s block is a bit like cleaning a revolver when you’re not entirely incapable of suicide. Paul Theroux’s new book, a clumsy attempt at the mystery novel, goes off in his own hand.


Publisher: Houghton MIfflin Harcourt
Number of Pages: 288
Title: A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta
Price: $26.00
Author: Paul Theroux
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-02-11

Writing a novel about writer’s block is a bit like cleaning a revolver when you’re not entirely incapable of suicide. Paul Theroux’s new book, a clumsy attempt at the mystery novel, goes off in his own hand.

The title of Theroux’s latest novel is, of course, a metaphor for writer’s block and a real dead hand will make its appearance, too. (The book is subtitled “A Crime in Calcutta”. Though the book is more than notes from a tourist guidebook, Theroux fails to capture the sights and smells of Calcutta.)

Jerry Delfont is a travel writer, a less successful version of Theroux (who himself will make a pointlessly menacing cameo mid-way through the book). One doesn’t normally associate writer’s block with travel writers. After all, for new inspiration they just have to move on. Yet Jerry insists (and insists) that he’s run out of gas: “I have no writing, I have a dead hand, I am out of stories, I have stopped believing... I didn’t have much to write about at the best of times, and now it’s done.”

Jerry is in Calcutta to give a few lectures at the invitation of the US Government. His commitment met, he can’t decide what to do next when he receives a long letter from Mrs. Merrill Unger, the book’s femme fatale. She writes that her son’s friend is in trouble, having recently spent a night in a “fleapit” hotel only to wake up and flee upon finding the body of a small boy on the floor. Hoping to protect her own son from trouble by association, she asks the writer to look into the matter.

Jerry can choose to ignore the letter or to meet with the woman and his choice is quickly rewarded.

As she smiled and held my hand and improved the drape of her sari by flinging a swag of its end over her shoulder with her free hand, as Indian women did, I realized that she was not just attractive, but extremely beautiful -- queenly, motherly, even sexual, with a slowness and elasticity in her manner and movements, a kind of strength and grace. I did not feel this in my brain but rather in my body, as a tingling in my flesh.

This, observe, is not great writing -- it is wordy without being sharply descriptive or evocative, and full of prosaic phrases like “she smiled and held my hand”, “not just attractive, but extremely beautiful” and “a kind of strength and grace”. Theroux is capable of much better.

Soon, we’ll discover that Mrs. Unger is a sexy version of Mother Teresa, a secretive philanthropist and child-saver who runs a large orphanage, a savvy business woman, a black woman passing for white who is also devoted to Hindu rituals of animal sacrifice (I’m not kidding), and Theroux, not wanting to avoid any opportunity to tantalize his narrator, he sees that she is also a gifted Tantric masseuse.

Not surprisingly -- after his first, platonic massage -- Jerry takes the bait. He visits the fleapit hotel, cons a young woman into letting him look at the guestbook, only to be driven away by an angry manager. His flagging enthusiasm for the chase is reinvigorated by a second, more conclusive Tantric message. His further investigations include going back to the hotel, a second meeting with the young woman, who has been beaten and fired by the hotel manager, and the receipt of a package containing the severed hand of a small boy, which he delivers to a coroner for examination.

As Theroux ratchets up his narrator’s obsession with Mrs. Unger -- which inspires him to start writing again -- he makes two fatal errors. First, as we suspect all along, Mrs. Unger is not quite the paragon she seems, though she’s hardly a Mrs. Fu Manchu. The revelations at the end of the book are desultory, predictable, and without suspense.

The greater crime of the book is its countless repetitions. One of many examples: as Delfont begins to become suspicious of Mrs. Unger, because he has seen a strange woman take away one of the children under suspicious circumstances, he says, “In her aromatic vault, on the table, she worked on me, but something in me refused to cooperate. I felt like clay. Doubt, misgiving, made my flesh inert. I wanted to give my whole being to her, yet a wariness kept me back.”

This passage appears on page 226. Almost the same statements are made on page 229, page 231, and again on page 233.

The Dead Hand could have been so much better. It feels slapdash and virtually untouched by an editor (who might also have convinced the author to forego several passages worthy of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). The very idea of Mrs. Unger (without the Tantric nonsense) is full of promise, and though close to being fully realized, she’s like a rose trying to blossom in a patch of stunted weeds.

I suspect there’s more screenplay than novel about The Dead Hand. There’s the same sense of “ka-ching!” about it that I felt when I finished Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. However, while the McCarthy book was gripping from beginning to end, I wanted to let drop The Dead Hand from my hand.

2
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.