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Originally published Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'A Dead Hand': Paul Theroux's agile Calcutta suspense

Paul Theroux evokes a vivid sense of place in "A Dead Hand," his suspenseful new Calcutta-based novel, in which a travel writer looking for stories in the city finds much more than he bargained for.

Special to The Seattle Times

'A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta'

by Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 279 pp., $26

The travel-writer narrator of the new novel by Paul Theroux does have a name: Jerry Delfont.

But it's given only once, midway through the book, and then in rather comic circumstances, as he's steered into meeting an author he'd rather avoid like the plague: the "notoriously prying" Paul Theroux.

Through most of "A Dead Hand," however, Jerry seems nameless. He is, by his own account, "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."

Perhaps it's his insistence on elusiveness that makes him fall so hard for a woman even more elusive than himself: the highhanded Mrs. Merrill Unger who runs an orphanage in Calcutta, likes to drop in on animal sacrifices, has a terrific talent for "tantric massage" and is trying to rescue her son Charlie's closest friend (maybe his boyfriend?) from a possible murder charge.

That's quite a combo for a travel writer looking for a story, and it's enough to induce Jerry to stay on in Calcutta, where he's been giving lectures.

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. The book's detail on Calcutta — from its genteel hotel lobbies to its back street "underworld" — couldn't be more vivid. There's macabre comedy here: for instance, when Charlie drawls at his mother, just back from a mysterious temple ceremony, "You're bloodstained as usual."

There are also genuine chills and a tricky narrative that, in addition to its suspense components, winds up swallowing its own tail. Theroux's close attention to the differences in manners and modes of expression between India and the U.S. is another plus.

Best of all, there's Mrs. Unger, who prefers that everyone call her "Ma" and is so slippery that she can fend off calumnious allegations against her with aplomb.

"Know-it-alls and bullies eat so badly," she explains, after her son Charlie suggests she might have poisoned his father. "He was a big carnivorous lout, a rather sad man, really, if you looked at him objectively, something I never did. I watched him eat himself to death. Is that insensitive?"

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Not the least of her attractions for Jerry is that, having asked him for help in absolving Charlie's sweet friend Rajat from the charges he might face after finding a young boy's corpse in his room, she refrains from bringing up the business for days and weeks at a time.

Instead, she distracts Jerry with her revitalizing massage techniques, proudly shows off her orphanage ("We never use that word. ... This is a home, a household") and takes him along with her on one of her child-rescue missions.

The "dead hand" of the title has a twofold meaning. It's Jerry's way of alluding to the writer's block he's suffering ("I was old and pale and out of ideas"), but it's also a literal dead hand that comes into his possession and poses an enigma of its own when he brings it to a forensics specialist for analysis.

Theroux's writing is as feline and agile as ever, and his calibration of clue and revelation is nicely meted out. There's one plot premise that's tough to buy: a mere magazine writer like Jerry seems unlikely to be as well-known or as much in demand on the lecture circuit as we're asked to believe. But look past that, and this story will lure you in, from its whodunit setup to its swift, unexpectedly visionary close.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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