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.


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