two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Paul Theroux
user_rating: 
0

A Crime in Calcutta

A-A Dead HandProlific novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux has published more than 40 novels, short story collections, and works of nonfiction. He is best known for his epic travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and his award-winning novel, The Mosquito Coast (1981), which was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford in 1986. Recently Reviewed Elephanta Suite ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2008) and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008).

The Story: Struggling with severe writer's block, washed-up travel writer Jerry Delfont finds himself in Calcutta, where he receives a letter from a wealthy, beautiful, and mysterious philanthropist Merrill Unger, an American expat who has gone native by wearing saris, speaking Bengali, and worshipping the Hindu goddess Kali. Mrs. Unger asks Jerry to make some discreet inquiries on behalf of her son's friend, who awoke in his cheap hotel room to find a dead child on the floor. While Jerry's investigation leads him deep into the seedy underbelly of the ancient, decaying city, he falls increasingly under the spell of Mrs. Unger, who may not be quite what she seems.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade. 279 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780547260242

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[The novel] has an abundance of richly drawn characters, Mrs. Unger the most enigmatic and scariest of them. Theroux has used his travel writer's eye and ear and his novelist's imagination to craft a tense, disturbing, funny and horrifying book around all of them." Charles Matthews

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In A Dead Hand, Theroux brings his best gifts as a travel writer to one of his walk-on-the-dark-side fables of masked identity and psychosexual quest. ... There are also genuine chills and a tricky narrative that, in addition to its suspense components, winds up swallowing its own tail." Michael Upchurch

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"On those terms [as a work of crime and detection], it's not a particularly successful novel, but this being Theroux it's frequently an interesting one. ... Odd, but the things about A Dead Hand that seem most right are evocations of India that seem most like great travel writing." Timothy Rutten

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"It's as if the bitterly frank autobiography of a travel writer wallowing in middle-age self-disgust had fused on the printer's floor with a trite and predictable ‘exotic' mystery, complete with a correct Indian pathologist and an avuncular diplomat. ... There's plenty of good, sharp observation in the novel, but the central riddle of Mrs. Unger--the nature of her interest in Delfont, her background, her religiosity--never really catches fire." Jason Goodwin

Independent (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"Theroux clearly has something important to say about the way the West dishes out aid and advice and attempts to control countries such as India, but he shies away from it somewhat at the end of A Dead Hand, never really having the commitment to tackle the subject head on. ... Instead, we have this rather ponderous affair that, despite some moments of fine prose, fails to engage as either a crime or a literary novel." Doug Johnstone

Guardian (UK) 1.5 of 5 Stars
"High points do come, but rarely. ... Jerry, in his mid-life emptiness and creative desiccation, never becomes convincing, and with a plot that creaks louder than a Bengali flophouse door, the story falls apart in a graceless and disagreeable jumble." Kevin Rushby

Times (UK) 1 of 5 Stars
"Greatness is not much in evidence in this sloppily written and infuriatingly repetitious book. ... Unlike Delfont, Theroux clearly doesn't suffer from writer's block: A Dead Hand is his 31st work of fiction and gives every impression of being written in a hurry and without the bother of revision." Peter Parker

Critical Summary

Theroux's latest novel galvanized critics, who found very little middle ground. Detractors pointed to a rickety plot, inexplicably abandoned subplots, flat secondary characters, repetitious imagery, narrative inconsistencies, and tediously long-winded descriptions of Tantric sex. Admirers, by contrast, praised Theroux's richly drawn main characters, graceful prose, and macabre humor. Reviewers also had mixed reactions to his insertion of himself as a character into the story--comic, clever, or clumsy? All agreed, however, that the novel's best feature was its vivid evocation of India, "brought brilliantly, blazingly to life" (Washington Post). A Dead Hand, it would seem, is classic Theroux: loyal fans will enjoy it, but those unfamiliar with his writing should start somewhere else.