Singapore’s most famous hotel is the shilling of this New Zealand thriller. So is it good?
New Zealand travel writer Vicki Virtue concocted her first novel, The Raffles Affair, during a writer’s residency at Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel. The hotel has since made a range of cocktails to promote the book, and they sell it in their gift shop. This is Sam Brooks.
The Raffles case is the closest I have felt to reading a Dan Brown book in years. Now, as you read this sentence, you’re probably thinking that I’m going to be browsing Vicki Virtue’s new book, a casual murder mystery set in Singapore’s most famous ode to colonialism, the Raffles Hotel.
However, the opposite is true. Dan Brown has a bad reputation for several reasons, many of which are legitimate – his ridiculous storylines, off-brand characterization, and oddly vivid description. Virtue does not commit any of these sins in her novel. However, the thing she nails, which Brown has also always nailed, prompts readers to turn to the next page. It’s not great art, it doesn’t change a life, but what’s the point of writing something that no one turns the page to read?
The Raffles Affair (caption: A Victoria West Mystery, Seeking Maximum Franchise Potential) follows a former MI6 agent who arrives at the Raffles Hotel to attend his lifelong friend’s wedding – an affair small but private attended by just the right number of people to fill out a murder mystery. It doesn’t take long before she’s drawn into a cauldron of deception and unlikely plot developments, stirred by a colorful cast of ridiculously unsympathetic wealthy people. West’s friend Peyton marries the Marsters family, a group of shady hedge fund traders who seem more comfortable with a salad fork than a moral compass. An incredible first scene shows just how horrible these people are, and it’s thanks to Virtue that she manages to make this cast appealing without ever letting them get away with being nothing but truly despicable creatures.
It’s a clichÃ© to say that the setting of all fiction is a character in its own right – New York City is Sex and the City’s âfifth girlâ, for example – and The Raffles Affair stops a bit before doing the titular hotel has its own character. You can feel the immense wealth and privilege seep from the place into the novel; there might as well be blood dripping from the walls, Shining-style. Virtue reminds us, without hitting the knee on the subject, that all the savage privileges present in the novel come at a cost to the whole world.
This is the closest thing to the novel’s commentary, and it’s probably best for it. There is no medicine hidden in the pudding here; we have to accept that we read about ridiculously rich, ridiculously white people – and the bad things they do to each other to stay that way – and still enjoy it. Thanks to Virtue’s crisp prose, a perfect blend of stopping to appreciate a sumptuous detail and moving on, it’s done.
It turns out that the protagonist is named after the author, and almost all the characters notice her positively. (And look, as a fiction writer myself, I have to resist the urge to put myself in a room and people to be nice to me on a daily basis. No judgment here, just an evaluation.)
While Brown’s work, if you can call it that, is the main point of reference that came to my mind during The Raffles Affair, there was another one running through my head: Kevin Kwan‘s Crazy Rich Asians, also a fun play on the rich Singapore backdrop (although the characters in Virtue’s story are mostly second-class citizens compared to Kwan’s). Rich and crazy Caucasians? Like Kwan, Virtue has the gameplay and attention to detail that readers expect from a book like this: it’s rich porn, not ambitious but fantastic. We don’t want to be them, but a dream or two couldn’t hurt.
It’s a tough balance, but Vertu handles it well. We must hate and suspect each and every wedding guest while yearning for the life they lead – throwing away tens of millions of dollars like they are $ 20 bills and casually renting out dining rooms. at the Raffles Hotel. . While The Raffles Affair is a fleet of meager 300 pages, where Virtue lingers on the hotel’s food and lavish colonial architecture. Take this description of his first meal:
âShe took a breadstick, encrusted with large rock salt crystals, and scooped up a thick dollop of deliciously tangy black olive tapenade she was in. She ate in silence, relishing her first bite of food since the bland buttered cod lunch they served on the plane.
And then this, from the private dining room:
âGold chandeliers hung like tambourine cords from the ceiling, the white plaster above was embellished with a bas-relief of delicate white peonies. Small specks of golden light from the sconces shone merrily in the high arched mirrors, which loomed majestically against the wall in finely curved framesâ¦ seemed to shine before her, like precious jewels on a crown.
It’s almost enough to make you wish the book had pictures. (Instead, probably because of the residency arrangement and all those lingering descriptive passages, Raffles’ Instagram features photos from the book, artfully arranged with signature cocktails and detective trinkets.)
The Raffles affair is undeniably a step backwards. How often do you read a full-fledged, unapologetic murder mystery these days? In this sense, it is a pure delight. There are more red herrings than a fish market and more errors than Google Maps trying to guide you through a construction area. During the inevitable scene where the detective exposes the crime, Virtue hoists his unfriendly plaster on their firecrackers like the best of them.
However, I continued to hope a little Following. A moment of subversion, something a little more modern. With the obvious exception of some tech stuff – you can only wonder what Agatha Christie would have done with an iPhone – this book could have been written 50 years ago, set included. Maybe the sequels will allow Virtue to put more twists on the format than she did here; this novel is any sign that she has the job.
On the other hand: it’s been a tough two years, guys. Sometimes what you need is a good murder mystery, where the letters c, o, v, i, and d don’t appear in that order at any point. That way, The Raffles Affair is like a nice cocktail: it doesn’t linger long after the end, but damn it’s good as long as it’s there.
The Raffles Affair, A Victoria West Mystery, by Vicki Virtue (PRH SEA, $ 32.99) is available at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
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