A Dead Hand, By Paul Theroux

Desire and detection in an Indian labyrinth
Click to follow

A dead hand might suggest a police procedural or a gory thriller for a novel subtitled "A Crime in Calcutta", but Paul Theroux prefers a metaphorical slant.

The hand in question is indeed a severed, pickled piece of evidence in what might more accurately be called a plot circumstance than a crime proper (which suggests more drama than this engaging novel yields). But it also sums up the narrator's pickle.

Jerry Delfont is a jobbing travel writer becalmed in Calcutta and in his career, suffering the "dead hand" of writer's block. Out of the blue, he receives a flattering missive from a Mrs Unger, a professed admirer, importuning him to discover the truth about an incident that might compromise one of her intimates. Intrigued, Delfont meets her in a grand hotel and hears how Rajat, a subservient friend of Mrs Unger's supercilious son Charlie, had fled after waking in the night to find a dead child wrapped in a carpet on his bedroom floor.

Rajat cringes; Charlie remains insolently aloof. Mrs Unger, at once charismatic and motherly, initiates a long, tantalising seduction of Delfont who, despite being "solitary and suspicious" by nature, finds himself suffering an uncharacteristic "schoolboy crush".

A media-shy American philanthropist with opaque business interests, Mrs Unger gathers street children into what she hissily refuses to call her orphanage. Delfont witnesses her charity and "sincere undertone of modesty", but mostly pines for those "magic fingers" that have probed his body, teaching him the explosive power of tantric massage in her private spa. Believing in this rapturous seduction is crucial to Theroux's slender narrative arc. Delfont travels from infatuation through exaltation to doubt, but doesn't always carry the reader with him. Smitten and bewildered, he tries to convince that his is "a peculiar form of devotion", but his attachment seems a product of his neediness as much as her wiliness. Given the paucity of sleuthing, Mrs Unger's possession of Delfont, rather than any anterior crime, takes centre stage.

There are strong similarities here to Blinding Light, a distinctly more rollicking Theroux plot. Both novels' protagonists recover their creative juices alongside a form of sexual reinvigoration but, while Blinding Light bound erotic intrigue to an almost shamanic power, A Dead Hand yields only the hollow realisation that Mrs Unger is not the goddess Delfont initially apprehended.

Their intense relationship holds much interest, glancing on the myopia of conviction and the conflicted ethics of philanthropy, but remains insufficient to sustain a rather contrived plot. As always, Theroux delivers pungent atmosphere, capturing the humid stench and labyrinthine decay of pre-monsoon Calcutta, but A Dead Hand seems caught between ideas, never quite fulfilling the promise of a mystery, nor having much of substance to say about mojo or muse.