The Feng Shui Detective Goes West by Nury Vittachi (Felony & Mayhem Press, 2011) is the second book to celebrate the good fortune enjoyed by Singapore’s leading geomancer, Master C T Wong. Thanks to his essential grasp of the principles of feng shui, he has made a modest success of his various business ventures. In particular, he has proved himself able to drive out the inherent bad luck in having a murder or other crimes occur in a place for which he assumes responsibility by revealing the identity of the perpetrators. Not that this is entirely due to his unaided efforts. There’s a presence in his office and by his side that sorely tests his patience, but which actually proves indispensable to his success. Joyce McQuinnie is an involuntary assistant who, in a slightly blundering way, gives our heroic Master insights into events. When they pull in opposite directions, there’s no positive flow in the chi. But when their yin and yang coincide, solutions to problems emerge. It should also be said that a certain Dilip Kenneth Sinha, an Indian astrologer, can sometimes make useful cross-cultural suggestions, even if only on which spices make the best curries.
This cast of characters is sent out into the Asia Pacific region by Nury Vittachi, a Sri Lankan author currently based in Hong Kong. For many years, he worked in England. This gives him a unique insight into the relationship between East and West and, in this book, he casts an informed eye on lifestyles in Singapore and Hong Kong, showing how essentially “local” people react to the threat, or the actual presence, of British royalty. Indeed, there are some passages explaining how the British royals relate to each other and come to have their names and titles that should be compulsory reading for all monarchists. It will help them understand why foreigners, that’s those supposedly loyal people in the Commonwealth (and ex-colonies), have an ambivalent view of the Queen and her family.
By now, you should recognise that the author is writing in a humorous style. This means he’s flirting with the danger of racial stereotyping. Let me give you an example. Anyone who has ever visited Singapore, mainland China or its suburb Hong Kong, will know that asking a local for directions on how to get from your current location to a desired location is an invitation to frustration. There’s a serious cultural limitation on the ability to think through the route and describe it coherently. The most usual reaction when asked is fear. If you can coax any signs, whether by pointing or in the local version of English, the best you can expect is to be encouraged to go away in the right direction. At every junction thereafter, ask again. This is a fact of life. It’s actually a useful warning to tourists or other visitors that it’s better they take a street map and navigate from that. So when Nury Vittachi describes Joyce McQuinnie’s struggle to find a particular address in Hong Kong, this is drawing a small smile from a minor cultural disability. But it becomes more serious when the author makes fun of the inability of Chinese speakers to use the consonant ‘r’. This is a feature of the articulatory phonetics of the different Chinese languages. Even after serious training in vocal production, the majority of Chinese people fail to get the alveolar r right and switch to the labiodental v as a substitute. Making a joke about this used to be velly common but, because it’s a making fun of a racial characteristic, I personally find this form of humour in poor taste. It’s symptomatic of a slightly patronising tone. This is not to say that all the humour in this book is tainted. The game involving song titles is amusing in its own right, i.e. there are some elements that stay within acceptable bounds and are genuinely funny. But you should consider this when deciding whether to buy and read it.
As to the core mystery, I understood exactly how the murder is supposed to take place. I’m just not convinced it’s actually practical. That said, the plot does all hang together. I think the extracts from “Oriental Wisdom” are beautifully rendered, and the thrillerish elements on the plane are appealingly logical. So, putting all this together, I found only a small percentage of The Feng Shui Detective Goes West to dislike. The rest was entertaining in a constructive way.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.