A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta
Paul Theroux
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Buy *A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta* by Paul Theroux online

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta
Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
288 pages
February 2010
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on A Dead Hand or here for Sandie Kirkland's review.

The initial mystery here is how to define the book. Is it more a travel adventure in the much-practiced mode of many previous Theroux books, or a too casually tossed-off mystery whose plot meanders in and out of a travel tale? Not surprisingly, considering Theroux’s long and impressive success as travel writer, his evocation of location - in this case Calcutta, India – is vivid, at times sounding like a paean to sounds and smells that most offend human senses.

“No matter where I was, the street noise, the reminder that Calcutta was dense with restless people, where the stinks were so sharp they seemed audible, the diesel fumes of taxis and buses, the reek of garbage, of shit, of risen dust that was also like a high-pitched whine, the vibration of dirt, the sweetish tang of decay, the presence of oil smoke from the lamps and candles of veneration.”
Still, this reader wished for more within the grittily exotic setting: more characters who serve the plot, since Theroux’s secondary characters are little more than set-dressing within his mystery. The central character, Merrill Unger, is, indeed, intriguing - a wealthy-by-widowhood American devoted to her child-rescue foundation whose good works are pursued with fearlessness and energy through dangerous and daunting areas of the circle-of-hell city. It must be noted that she plunges into forays through even the most fetid of settings while dressed in colorful, rustling saris of fine silk. As Theroux’s vocationally and spiritually depleted magazine writer Jerry Delfont finds, to his immense gratification when she enlists him to solve a child murder, there are perks that come with the job: tantric sex with the boss-lady.

Soon a previously aimless, dispirited Delfont has bound himself, physically and psychologically: “I wanted to do whatever she wished of me; I wanted her to use me. She was virtuous and I was not, and to prove it, here I was on the sacrificial altar, flat on my face, stark naked.” Yet, just as in the venerable buildings of Calcutta, there are cracks in the facade of Merrill Unger that will test the besotted Delfont’s chosen honorific, “virtuous.” The first such crack in this seemingly gracious, compassionate model of charity reveals her highly fallible human side. She confesses to Delfont her bitter loathing (resentment? envy?) of Mother Teresa, whom she had known and once supported:

“Instead of faith, she had a feral willpower and a love of failure and death, poverty and illness... all these miseries that concentrate a person’s mind on salvation. ‘Save me,’ people screamed at her, and that hopeless scream turned her head. Who would not be attentive to people so desperate, especially if you can build a reputation on it?”
Secondary characters who might have added heft to the whole are introduced but never fleshed-out. One is Delfont’s poet friend, the beautiful Parvati, who struggles against cultural limitations imposed even on educated and privileged women. Another is Dr. Mooly Mukherjee, police medical examiner, whom Theroux would have done well to accord an expanded role. Yet writing himself into the story (Theroux meets Delfont) serves only as momentary distraction, seeming merely a whimsical space-filler.

Also, less lengthy and tediously repetitive tantric sex scenes might’ve eased the sense of imbalance stemming from too little attention to more fully crafting secondary characters and giving greater attention to the mystery. What we get is a moveable, maundering, yet highly readable melange from a prolific, creative, long-successful writer.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Norma J. Shattuck, 2010

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