A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta

A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta

By:  Paul Theroux

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When Jerry Delfont, an aimless travel writer with writer’s block (his “dead hand”), receives a letter from an American philanthropist, Mrs. Merrill Unger, with news of a scandal involving an Indian friend of her son’s, he is intrigued. Who is the dead boy, found on the floor of a cheap hotel room? How and why did he die? And what is Jerry to make of a patch of carpet, and a package containing a human hand?

He is swiftly captivated by the beautiful, mysterious Mrs. Unger—and revived by her tantric massages—but the circumstances surrounding the dead boy cause him increasingly to doubt the woman’s motives and the exact nature of her philanthropy. Without much to go on, Jerry pursues answers from the teeming streets of Calcutta to Uttar Pradesh. It is a dark and twisted trail of obsession and need.

Beautifully written, A Dead Hand demonstrates the powerful evocation of place and character that has made Paul Theroux one of the most perceptive and engaging writers today.

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  • Format: Paperback

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547394497

  • ISBN-10: 0547394497

  • Pages: 288

  • Price: $16.99

  • Publication Date: 01/13/2011

  • Carton Quantity: 24

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod.
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  • reviews

    "...the real pleasure is Theroux’s talent for rendering place and his irreverent comments on everything from the British royals to pop culture, aging, and yes, the venerable Mother Teresa."

                                  -- Publishers Weekly


    "A novel of extremes—rationality and obsession, humanitarianism and selfishness, ecstasy and heartlessness."

                                 -- Kirkus Reviews


    "...an abundance of richly drawn characters...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."

                                -- San Francisco Chronicle


    "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…[His] writing is as feline and agile as ever, and his calibration of clue and revelation is nicely meted out…this story will lure you in, from its whodunit setup to its swift, unexpectedly visionary close."

                               -- The Seattle Times

  • excerpts

    The envelope had no stamp and only my name underlined

    on the front; it had somehow found me in Calcutta.

    But this was India, where big pink foreigners were so obvious

    we didn't need addresses. Indians saw us even if we didn't see

    them. People talked grandly of the huge cities and the complexity,

    but India in its sprawl seemed to me less a country than a bloated

    village, a village of a billion, with village pieties, village pleasures,

    village peculiarities, and village crimes.

     A letter from a stranger can be an irritation or a drama. This

    one was on classy Indian handmade stationery, flecks of oatmeal

    in its weave and reddish threads like blood spatter, with assertive

    handwriting in purple ink. So I dramatized it, weighed it in my

    hand, and knifed it open slowly, as though I was being watched. In

    populous Calcutta, city of deformities, my being watched was

    highly likely. But how did anyone know I was at the Hotel Hastings,

    east of Chowringhee, in an obscure lane off Sudder Street, in

    every sense buried alive?

     I happened to be looking for a story, but Calcutta had started to

    creep on my skin, and I had even begun to describe how the feel of

    this city in its exhalations of decay in the months before the monsoon

    was like the itch you experience when you empty an overfull

    vacuum cleaner's dirt bag, packed with hot grit and dead hair and

    dust bunnies and dander, and you gag and scratch at the irritation

    and try to claw the tickle and stink off your face - one of my arresting


     As I was rereading the letter to see if it was authentic, a wasp

    began to swing in short arcs and butt the windowpane, seeing only

    daylight. I opened the window to release it, but instead of flying

    out, it drowsed to another window and butted it - stupid! - then

    settled on my damp arm. I flicked at it. It made an orbit around

    my head and finally,

    though I'd tried to save it, did not fly out the

    window but seemed to vanish somewhere in my room, where it

    would buzz and sting me in the night.

     I remembered how my friend Howard at the American consulate

    had asked me the day before if I'd ever been married. I said,

    “No, and I'm at that stage in my life when I no longer see a woman

    and say to myself, 'Maybe she's the one for me.'”

     Pretty good answer, I thought. I was surprised at my own honesty.

    For years I had told plausible lies, saying that I was too busy

    with work, the travel pieces I wrote. I used to enjoy musing,

    “Maybe she's the one.” But travel had absorbed me. It was so easy

    for a writer like me to put off the big decision - not a travel writer

    but a traveling writer, always on the move, always promising a

    book. I had disappointed two women back in the States, and after I

    left I became one of those calculated enigmas, self-invented,

    pretending to be spiritual but ruthlessly worldly, full of bonhomie and

    travel advice, then giving people the slip when they got to know

    me too well or wanted more than I was willing to give. I no longer

    regretted the missed marriage, though I had a notion that I should

    have fathered a child. Now, too late, I was another evasive on-the-

    roader who spread himself thin, liking the temporary, the easy excuses,

    always protesting and moving on. I have to be in Bangkok on

    Monday! As if the matter was urgent and difficult.

    But Bangkok was a lovely hotel, beers with other complacent narcissists like me,

    and a massage parlor, the best sex - hygienic and happy and anonymous,

    blameless relief.

     You're a nomad, people said to me. It was partly true - if you

    know anything about nomads, you know they're not aimless. They

    are planners and savers, entirely predictable, keeping to well-established

    routes. I also had a nomad's sometimes startling receptivity

    to omens.

     The day of the letter, for example, was eventful - strange portents,

    I thought. First the wasp, then the sight of a twisted paralytic

    child on Chowringhee creeping on hands and knees like a

    wounded animal, a new species of devolving human, reverting to

    all fours. And that afternoon my dancer friend, the willowy Parvati,

    revealing for the first time that she was adept in a kind of Indian

    martial art called kalaripayatu, and “I could break your arm,

    but I could also set it, because if one knows how to injure, one

    must also know how to heal.” Parvati wrote sensual poems, she

    played the tabla, she wanted to write a novel, she wasn't married,

    and I was happy knowing her because I never wondered, “Maybe

    she's the one for me.”

     That same day, my friend Howard at the U.S. consulate told me

    about the children disappearing from the streets, kidnapped to

    work in brothels or sweatshops, or sold to strangers.

     “And get this” - he knew an expat couple with a young child

    who could never find their amah at home. The amah explained,

    “We walk in park.” The child was very calm when he was with the

    nanny, and the nanny was upscale: gold bangles, an iPod, always

    presents for the kid. “I saving money.” But one day on their way

    home at an odd hour in a distant neighborhood the couple saw

    their nanny panhandling in traffic, another bhikhiri at an intersection,

    holding their infant son - a classic Bengali beggar, pathetic in

    her tenacity. And the child, who was drooling and dazed, was

    drugged with opium.

     “Maybe you can use it,” Howard said, as people do with writers.

    Oddly enough, I just did, but it was the letter that changed

    everything. The letter was obviously from a woman, obviously


       * * *

     Rich people never listen, and that was why I preferred the woman's

    letter in my hand rather than having her bray into my face,

    one of those maddening and entrapping monologues: “Wait. Let

    me finish!” I could read the letter in peace. Something about it told

    me that if the woman who wrote it had been with me, she would

    talk nonstop. And given the nature of the facts in the letter - a

    dead body in a cheap hotel room, a frightened guest, his fleeing,

    the mystery - I needed a clear head, and silence, and time to think.

    She was asking a favor. I could reach a wiser decision if I made

    my judgment on the basis of facts alone - the form of her appeal,

    her handwriting, the whole tone of the letter, rather than being

    attracted or repelled by the guilefulness of the woman herself, believing

    that the written word is more revealing than a face.

     I knew she was rich from the gold-embossed Hindu symbol on

    the letterhead and the expensive paper. I knew she was an older

    woman from her handwriting alone; a younger person would have

    scribbled or sent me an e-mail. Wealth was evident in her presumptuous

    and casual tone, even her slipshod grammar, the well-formed

    loops in her excellent penmanship. The envelope had been

    hand-delivered to me at my hotel.

     “Post for you, sir,” Ramesh Datta, the desk clerk, said, handing

    it over. He too was impressed by the plumpness of the thing: a

    long letter, a big document, a sheaf of words, as though it represented

    witchery or wealth, an old-fashioned


    Amazing most of all to be holding an actual three-page letter,

    written in purple ink on thick paper, like an artifact, and even the

    subject and the peripheral details were old-fashioned: a rich woman's

    wish, a corpse, a shocked hotel guest in Calcutta just after the

    Durga Puja festival.

     Dear Friend, it began.

     I heard your marvelous talk last night at the American cultural

    center and wanted to come up afterwards to speak to you, but

    you were ...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: Paperback

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547394497

  • ISBN-10: 0547394497

  • Pages: 288

  • Price: $16.99

  • Publication Date: 01/13/2011

  • Carton Quantity: 24

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