New Zealand travel writer Vicki Virtue concocted her debut 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’re selling it in their gift shop. Here’s Sam Brooks.
The Raffles Affair is the closest I’ve come to the feeling of reading a Dan Brown book in years. Now, reading that sentence, you probably think I’m going to pan Vicki Virtue’s new book, a jaunty murder mystery set in Singapore’s most famous ode to colonialism, Raffles Hotel.
However, the opposite is true. Dan Brown gets a bad rap for a fair few reasons, many of them legit – his ridiculous plots, his off-brand wafer-thin characterisation, and bizarrely vivid description. Virtue commits none of these sins in her novel. However, the thing that she nails, that Brown has also consistently nailed, is getting readers to turn to the next page. It’s not high art, it’s not life-changing, but what’s the point of writing something that nobody’s turning the page to read?
The Raffles Affair (subtitle: A Victoria West Mystery, angling for maximum franchise potential) follows a former MI6 agent who arrives at Raffles Hotel to attend her lifelong friend’s wedding – a small but private affair attended by just the right amount of people to fill out a murder mystery. It doesn’t take long before she’s embroiled in a cauldron of deception and unlikely plot developments, stirred by a colourful cast of ridiculously unsympathetic wealthy people. West’s friend, Peyton, is marrying into the Marsters family, a bunch of shady hedge fund operators who seem more comfortable with a salad fork than a moral compass. An incredible early scene lays out how awful these people are, and it’s a credit to Virtue that she manages to make this cast engaging without ever letting them off the hook for being just truly despicable creatures.
It’s a cliche to say that the setting of any piece of fiction is a character in its own right – New York City is the “fifth girl” of Sex and the City, for example – and The Raffles Affair stops a bit short of making the titular hotel its own character. You can feel the immense wealth and privilege seeping from the location into the novel; there might as well be blood dripping from the walls, Shining-style. Virtue reminds us, without tapping the knee about it, that all of the wild privilege present in the novel comes at a cost to the wider world.
That’s the closest that the novel comes to commentary, and it’s probably better for it. There’s no medicine hidden in the pudding here; we’re to accept that we’re reading about ridiculously rich, ridiculously white people – and the bad things they do to each other in order to remain so – and enjoy it regardless. Thanks to Virtue’s crisp prose, a perfect blend of stopping to appreciate a lavish detail and getting on with it, it succeeds.
The protagonist just so happens to be named after the author and just so happens to have nearly every character remark on her positively. (And look, as a fiction writer myself, I have to daily resist the urge to put myself into a play and have people be nice to me. No judgment here, just assessment.)
While Brown’s oeuvre, if you can call it that, is the main reference point that came to mind during The Raffles Affair, there was another one scratching at the back of my mind: Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, also a fun romp about the wealthy set in Singapore (although the characters of Virtue’s story are basically second-class citizens compared to Kwan’s). Crazy Rich Caucasians? Like Kwan, Virtue has the sense of playfulness and attention to detail that readers want from a book like this: it’s wealth porn, not aspirational but fantastical. We don’t want to be them, but an idle dream or two couldn’t hurt.
It’s a difficult balance, but Virtue manages it well. We have to hate and suspect each and every one of the wedding guests while also kind of aspiring to the life they lead – throwing around tens of millions of dollars like they’re $20 bills, and casually hiring out whole dining rooms at the Raffles Hotel. While The Raffles Affair is a fleet, lean 300 pages, where Virtue does linger is on the food and the lavish colonial architecture of the hotel. Take this description of her first meal:
“She took a breadstick, embedded with large crystals of rock salt and scooped up a thick dollop of the deliciously pungent black olive tapenade it was sitting in. She ate in silence, enjoying her first morsel of food since the bland lunch of buttered cod they had served on the plane.”
And then this, of the private dining room:
“Gold chandeliers hung like strings of tambourines from the ceiling, the white plaster work above embellished with a bas-relief of delicate white peonies. Small, golden flecks of light from the wall lamps glittered gaily in the high-arched mirrors, which sat grandly against the wall in finely curved frames … The tables were laid with immaculately pressed, white linen napkins, and the crystal glassware and sculptured Laguiole knives seemed to sparkle at her, like precious jewels on a crown.”
It’s almost enough to make you wish the book had photos. (Instead, presumably because of the residency arrangement and all those lingering descriptive passages, Raffles’ Instagram features photos of the book, arranged artfully with signature cocktails and detective knick-knackery.)
The Raffles Affair is undeniably a throwback. How often do you read a full-blown, unapologetic murder mystery these days? In that way, it’s a pure delight. There’s more red herrings than a fish market, and more misdirects than Google Maps trying to lead you through a construction zone. During the inevitable scene in which the detective lays out the crime, Virtue hoists her unsympathetic cast on their petards like the best of them.
However, I kept hoping for a little bit more. A moment of subversion, something a bit more modern. With the obvious exception of certain bits of technology – you can only wonder what Agatha Christie would’ve done with an iPhone – this book could’ve been written 50 years ago, setting included. Perhaps the sequels will allow Virtue to put more twists on the format than she’s done here; this novel is every indication that she’s got the craft.
On the flipside of that: it’s been a rough two years, you 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. In that way, The Raffles Affair is like a good cocktail: it doesn’t linger long after you finish, but damn it’s nice while it’s there.
The Raffles Affair, A Victoria West Mystery, by Vicki Virtue (PRH SEA, $32.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.