Here’s a fresh work that hearkens back to the Great White Writers of yore—to authors like Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham, men who ventured to far-off lands so that they could bring back news of what happens when West meets East, and when “light” (represented by a protagonist who subscribes to the canons of European-style rationality) meets “dark” (made manifest in the lures and snares of a remote and “savage” place). In the Great White way of writing, the East often assumes the shape of a woman who beckons siren-like to a male-embodied West; she displays a willingness to be mastered but refuses to be fully known. In the Orient, the Great White Writer suggests, the exotic and the erotic twist about each other like tightly woven threads. The tales that he spins on the loom of that worldview alternately provoke and pander to the tastes and morals of his less intrepid readers, and they range in quality from certified high-brow art (A Passage to India) to fairly low-grade pulp (King of the Khyber Rifles).
Few people, in this post-colonial age, write in that vein anymore. But Theroux does. What distinguishes him from his Victorian and Edwardian forebears is the postmodern inflection that he adds to work that otherwise follows an old-fashioned narrative grammar. In this novel of mystery set in early 21st-century India, he gives an intertextual nod to classic images of mystification from the heyday of the Great White Writer: “the figure in the carpet,” from a Henry James tale of that name; “the dog that did not bark,” from a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Theroux, a writer who travels and a traveler who writes, also adheres to the postmodernist belief that stories about writing have as much potential to fascinate as stories about travel—that the work and the worry of a writer’s life are a proper subject for fiction. He even introduces a character named Paul Theroux, a famous writer-traveler who pops up to serve as a foil to the novel’s hero-narrator, Jerry Delfont, who is likewise a writer-traveler, albeit not a very successful one. Reinforcing that hall-of-mirrors effect are the particulars of Delfont’s biography and sensibility, which roughly match known facts about the real (“real”?) Paul Theroux.
Like many Americans who travel to India, Delfont can’t decide whether he has gone there to find himself or to lose himself. His literary powers appear to have vanished; he suffers, in his words, from “a dead hand.” (Others would simply call it “writer’s block.”) Yet destiny, or what will pass for destiny, finds him when a lavishly hand-written letter arrives at the cheap hotel in Calcutta where he is staying. It’s from an American woman, one Mrs. Unger, and she invites Delfont to apply his writerly know-how to investigating a puzzle that involves an Indian friend of hers. Thus, as if the everyday mysteries of India weren’t sufficient to his needs, he now has a pair of inexplicable phenomena to busy his mind. There’s a situational mystery: How did a dead body turn up in a hotel room occupied by Mrs. Unger’s friend? And there’s a personal mystery: Who, really, is this Mrs. Unger? To Delfont, she is powerful (a rich widow, she owns property all around Calcutta), and beneficent (a philanthropist, she scorns the attention-grabbing model of Mother Theresa in favor of quiet good works), and enthralling (a charismatic beauty, she also has a gift for tantric massage, as Delfont discovers to his immense pleasure). She arouses in him an obsessive ardor—and an urge to write again. His authorial hand shows signs of new life, and the result is the beginning of a story that he calls “A Dead Hand.”
As the novel unfolds, the meaning of that term ramifies in several directions. During his inquiry into the hotel-room incident, Delfont takes possession of a literal dead hand. It was, he learns, cut from the corpse of a small boy. He also learns that the hand bears no traceable fingerprints. Its owner, presumably forced to ply a trade that wore his fingertips smooth from overuse, lacked that universal mark of identity. Even in life, one might say, the hand had undergone a kind of death. Other clues emerge, meanwhile, and they lead the scribbler-cum-sleuth to a point where his twin mysteries overlap. Mrs. Unger is plainly too good to be true. Delfont extols her many charms and virtues (in an ingenuous and sometimes overweening tone that might count as the book’s main flaw)—and yet a dark aura swirls about her. She’s a figure drawn from the gothic tradition, an object of romantic interest who harbors secrets that form a barrier to genuine romance. Where does her evident goodness truly begin and end? Will the dead hand of that young boy figuratively touch her in some way? Those secrets remain hidden until the book’s effective and resonant finale.