Murder and mystery in Calcutta—but not a typical murder mystery.
The hyperprolific Theroux (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, 2008, etc.) returns to India for the setting of this narrative, for perhaps only the enigmatic mystique of that country can frame the unconventionality of his characters. Travel writer Jerry Delfont, his life deadened by lack of purpose, is experiencing the “dead hand” of writer’s block. Amid his existential ennui he receives a letter from a Merrill Unger informing him that a body had been discovered in the hotel room in which a friend of Mrs. Unger’s son was staying. She fears that this friend, who fled the scene, might be held accountable for murder and hopes Delfont might be able to help. While Delfont is no detective, he’s sufficiently intrigued by the letter to meet Mrs. Unger. His encounter with her, rather than the body in a sketchy hotel room, becomes the center of the novel. Unger is an American who dresses in saris, speaks Bengali and is obviously well off. She’s generous, charming and dangerously alluring. She’s also a devotee of the goddess Kali and a student of Tantric sex. At first mildly attracted, Delfont eventually becomes besotted with her. Aroused by her as a practitioner of Tantric massage and both appalled and fascinated when he witnesses the sacrifice of a goat at a temple dedicated to Kali, he begins to live a double life, hiding his obsession (most amusingly when he runs into another travel writer—named Paul Theroux—whom he describes as a “flitting, pitiless man”). As Delfont continues to pursue the story of the murder—supposedly to please Unger—he investigates his only evidence, the victim’s “dead hand,” which has no fingerprints. This enigma leads him to a sordid underworld in which child labor is exploited and casual cruelty is visited upon the most vulnerable in Indian society.
A novel of extremes—rationality and obsession, humanitarianism and selfishness, ecstasy and heartlessness.