Paul Theroux's novel is not a traditional whodunnit. But what exactly is it, the reader is left wondering.
The remarkably prolific Paul Theroux has averaged around a book a year for the better part of four decades — this includes travel writing, for which he is best known, as well as fiction that frequently draws on his experiences of travelling and living in different lands.
You wouldn't think of him as the sort of author who struggles much when it comes to filling a page with words. However, his new novel A Dead Handfeatures a Theroux-like narrator-protagonist who is suffering from a bad case of writer's block.
Jerry Delfont is an itinerant travel writer currently living in Calcutta, looking for a story, and hit by inertia. He has an impressive opening paragraph (or what he thinks is an impressive opening paragraph) that compares the city's atmosphere to a bulging vacuum-cleaner dirt-bag, but that's about it. In other words, he has a “dead hand” — “it seemed a true description of what I was facing, a limpness akin to an amputation” — and being middle-aged, he worries that it might herald a permanent decline.
But there's more than one kind of dead hand in this novel. The other, more literal version emerges soon after Jerry is approached by an American philanthropist, Mrs. Unger, who asks him to investigate an incident involving a little boy's corpse in a dingy little hotel room.
Initially unwilling to get involved, Jerry finds himself besotted — in ways that he can't fully articulate — by the enigmatic, maternal yet sensuous Mrs. Unger. And as he discovers, there's nothing in the least dead about her hand: an almost magically skilled masseuse, she soon has him under her thumb, in more than one way.
Theroux is a polished, fluent writer; the quality of his prose is better than what one expects from genre fiction (and A Dead Hand is very much a genre thriller). As in previous books, notably The Elephanta Suite, he has a way of capturing little things about India that might make Indians bristle; and even lead to accusations of an outsider being patronising or promoting stereotypes; but which have the ring of uncomfortable truth about them. “As I was leaving,” says Jerry at one point, “I heard him shout — a bawling in Bengali, the sort of rage I'd heard before in India, uninhibited indignation, pure fury, always a man screaming at a woman.”
And this, when referring to certain middle-class Indians whose English combines grammatical incorrectness with a florid over-formality that suggests the colonial legacy: “They had the language for every occasion. It was still possible to be subtle, even sinuous, in a conversation, probably as a result of the weirdly Victorian verbosity, using politeness and amplification and elaborate excuses and courtesies.”
On yet another occasion, Jerry says that “India's human features” frighten him, but then speculates that “I saw doomed people where (Mrs. Unger) saw life and hope, because I was doing nothing and she was bringing help.”
Of course, it's important not to confuse narrator with author: Jerry is given to painting with much broader brush-strokes than Theroux himself would. But he can certainly be seen as a version of Theroux, perhaps a more callow version. Or perhaps a lazier, less ambitious version, the sort who wouldhide behind the façade of “writer's block”.
This parallel is underlined for us midway through the book — in a passage that doesn't take the main narrative forward but is very intriguing on its own terms — when Jerry has a brief meeting with the travel writer “Paul Theroux”, who happens to be visiting Calcutta. During the course of their exchange, we get a vivid, cynical image of an inquisitive writer as someone who pokes a wary animal: “It was not only cruel, but the torment evoked an uncharacteristic and untrue reaction.” Despite many thoughtful passages like this, A Dead Hand has a peculiar, unfinished feel about it. The book's target reader would seem to be someone who simply wants to read a cosy little Oriental mystery (the subtitle “A Crime in Calcutta” suggests as much), and in this sense it never quite satisfies.
Early on, when we learn that Mrs. Unger's largesse extends to rescuing and caring for some of the city's huge population of orphaned children, it isn't too difficult to guess the general direction where the story is headed, and one keeps waiting for a twist that will add a new, unanticipated dimension. However, this never quite happens; the book doesn't seem to want to be a conventional whodunit (or whadhappened).
But in that case, what is it? Is it more about slowly unwrapping the many veils that conceal the real Mrs. Unger (something one can't be sure Jerry has succeeded in doing by the end of the book)? Or is this inscrutable woman an elaborate symbol for Calcutta — and, by extension, for India? raises these questions but leaves them hanging in the musty air of the dirt-bag.