A famous, globetrotting author writes in feverish and unsparing detail a story set in Kolkata, a city in a continuous state of dilapidation. And yet, A Dead Hand: A Crime In Calcutta, Paul Theroux’s latest work of fiction, falls far short of being memorable, both as a thriller and a travelogue.
Holed up in a nondescript hotel in Kolkata’s Sudder Street, down-in-the-dumps travel writer Jerry Delfont receives a letter from one Merill Unger asking him to investigate a grisly crime. Unger’s churlish adopted son has an effeminate Bengali friend who chances upon the body of a naked young boy in a flea-infested hotel in downtown Kolkata.
Unger urges Delfont to look for the truth behind the crime. The author is not too keen until he meets the drop-dead gorgeous Unger. Delfont’s investigation takes him to the nether parts of Kolkata. He discovers in a Christopher Hitchens-type exposé that there are hidden facets to Unger.
The potentially exciting thriller, however, is spoilt by certain irritants. Delfont, for instance, cannot quite pin down the season in which the events in the book occur. Another irritating gimmick is getting Delfont to meet the “famous and successful travel writer” Paul Theroux.
You get the feeling that whenever the narrator finds his grip on the plot slipping he summons the author to make up.
This slippery thriller makes occasional, poetic detours into subterranean Kolkata. It is in these parts only that the novel works, and that too as a travelogue.