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Review: A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux's fiction has long been as peripatetic as his more popular travel tales. His novels roam the globe, intrepid as Swift's Gulliver and no less likely to unearth astonishments, many of them freakish. In story after story, the American explores the disasters brought on by awkward, often parasitic contact between various worlds.

It is easy to imagine Theroux seated for days on those trains he loves, mentally elaborating on the glancing encounters with "real" people featured in books like The Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari. These elaborations, having passed through the portal of his vivid imagination and excoriating intellect, birth novels of equal colour, and greater power to unsettle.

A Dead Hand, his 31st work of fiction, deepens the preoccupations outlined in the 2007 trilogy of novellas The Elephanta Suite. India would be the broad focus for Theroux, but what really occupies him is how Westerners - or fellow Americans, to be exact - embrace the illusions and mistake the realities of the Indian subcontinent. Broadly, the interactions in the earlier book are selfish, delusional and exploitative. While no good comes of them, the bad that results is more metaphor than actual mayhem: Wobbly senses of identity transformed, or dissolved. The other quality to Paul Theroux's sensibility - his severe judgments of human beings, real or invented - ensures that none of those identities were benevolent, or self-aware, to begin with.

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His latest foray into how the West mis-encounters the East takes these themes and judgments to a new height - or, perhaps, depth. A Dead Hand also pressures for a literal annihilation, an outcome arrested, it would seem, only by the dictates of genre fiction. As the subtitle suggests, the novel is an aspiring crime story, complete with false clues and artificial plot resolutions.

Jerry Delfont is an American travel writer in Calcutta. Long unable to produce a book, he has lately dried up even as a writer of magazine pieces, the small skill on which his small reputation is based. He has, by his own account, the "dead hand" of writer's block, and is a middle-aged wastrel at large in the monstrous Indian city.

Indian misery, in particular the exploitation of children, is central to A Dead Hand

Lucky for him, he receives a letter from an enigmatic American philanthropist, and long-term Calcutta resident, asking his help in a delicate matter. The beautiful Merrill Unger presents Delfont with a nebulous crime involving one of her employees and an Indian child. He dutifully pursues her cause out of an instant desire for her body and, to equal degree, her noble mind.

The amateur sleuth is quickly embroiled. The murder, too, features a "dead hand," in this case the tiny severed limb of the victim. But Delfont is more drawn to the mysteries of Merrill Unger. She runs a private orphanage, plucking selected children out of poverty, and is a scathing critic of publicity-seeking do-gooders like Mother Teresa. A devotee of the goddess Kali, Unger is also adept at Tantric sex, a skill she shares with the grateful writer. "I had not realized it was possible to go so far," Jerry Delfont admits at one point.

Indian misery, in particular the exploitation of children, is central to A Dead Hand. Theroux's acute and unsparing descriptive powers render vivid everything from Calcutta street chaos to the sensations of Tantric massage. But his clipped depiction of a brothel staffed by child prostitutes is what stays in the mind.

"A fat old hag was seated just inside one open doorway, attended by a retinue of little whores, painting the fat woman's toenails and massaging her feet."

About this scene, Merrill Unger, resplendent in a white sari and shawl, declares: "It's not hell. Hell - if you believe in it - is forever. But these girls can be rescued." Elsewhere, however, having "rescued" a single young girl, she speaks of how "this place is full of energy." That remark should set off alarm bells.

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But then the besotted Delfont has been obtuse about his new lover, and her philanthropy, from the start. Readers, unfortunately, won't be so dense. For a crime novel, A Dead Hand lacks suspense or surprise. Whether he intended it or not, Theroux set himself a huge task: to do novelistic justice to characters he despises. Too much space is devoted to outlining their awfulness and too little to rendering them credible.

Time is spent mulling over the nature of creativity as well. Delfont's musings on the glibness of travel writing are engaging, if decidedly self-referential, and the conceit that the book he is suddenly scribbling, his dead hand resurrected by the attentions of Merrill Unger, is the very same one that we are reading, is over-familiar. This autumn alone, another major American novel employs the same trope: John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River.

As for the cameo in A Dead Hand by a character named Paul Theroux, an acclaimed novelist and travel writer notorious for his ruthless observational eye and lack of discretion, it is no fresher a meta-fictional play. Given his larger omnipresence, the part for Paul Theroux could easily have been left on the editing-room floor.

The novel, in short, feels as destabilized as its characters. A fearless artist, Theroux is prepared to think about things and travel to places most of us leave unexamined and unexplored. Predictable and awkwardly told, skewed by an animus toward its cast, A Dead Hand is nonetheless bold and bracing, as stark, and distressing, as the image of a child prostitute painting an obese madam's toenails.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's most recent book is the essay collection Join the Revolution, Comrade.

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