Vittachi, Nury .(2004) The Feng Shui Detective. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

The story is set in Singapore and Australia, but this book takes its place in this database because its author, the Sri Lankan Nury Vittachi, is a ubiquitous presence in the Hong Kong media and writing scene.

The feng shui detective, whose adventures have featured in half a dozen books, is C. F. Wong. Wong is a professional geomancer, who is consulted by clients who want to know if adjustments to the home or work environment – such as the placement of furniture or the deployment of objects to attract good fortune or to deflect bad – will enhance the success and prosperity of the activities pursued on the premises. His profession gives Wong qualities of observation and shrewdness that make him a gifted amateur detective, and has the extra advantage of bringing him into contact with seemingly inexplicable mysteries that conceal all sorts of skullduggery.

Mr Wong was born in a village in Guangdong province, but works in Singapore, out of an office in Telok Ayer Street presided over by a tyrannically incompetent receptionist. Wong is serious about his profession: the book contains a certain amount of feng shui lore and makes an effort to separate it from superstition and gimmicky trinkets. But Wong is a Cantonese and a businessman, so he is also serious about the need to make money.

To oblige a rich client, Mr Wong has taken on an intern (later assistant) in the shape of Joyce McQuinnie, a gawky seventeen-year-old of British-Australian parentage, educated in Hong Kong. The contrastive relationship between these two forms the core of the story. It is not so much an intellectual contrast – as between Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings – as a cultural and linguistic one. Joyce bemuses Wong by her easy familiarity with the gizmos of the postmodern world, her Third Culture Kids lifestyle, and her teenage argot. Wong’s English is rather formal and book-learned, and he is often at sea with Joyce’s fast-paced patter. The sometimes comic struggles of second-language users with English vocabulary and idiom had proved a reliable stand-by in Vittachi’s humorous newspaper columns, and now provide the staple of the verbal comedy in the world of the feng shui detective. Mr Wong trips up over locutions like “not your cup of tea”, “putting two and two together”, and “no peace for the wicked”. Visiting Sydney, he is puzzled to hear that the city boasts an Oprah House. And so on.

There are other recurring characters. C. F. Wong’s fellow members of the Singapore Union of Industrial Mystics (a branch has opened in Shanghai in a later volume) include Madame Xu Chong Li, an elderly Chinese fortune teller, and Dilip Kenneth Sinha, practitioner of Ayurvedic sciences and various types of Indian astrology. Superintendent Gilbert Tan is their liaison with the local police. Together they make a cosy and appropriately otherworldly group, though their various skills can all help with the solving of mysteries, as can Joyce’s common sense and her lifeline to the ways of the baffling contemporary world.

The plot involves a haunted dental surgery, a kidnapped teenager, a hi-tech bomoh or witch doctor from Malaysia, and the fugitive girlfriend of a Hong Kong triad enforcer, whose imminent death seems, by all the mystic signs, to be inevitable. The action takes C. F. Wong and his assistant from Singapore to Sydney and back, and all mysteries are solved in the end.

This book is easy to read: the humour is mild and everyone except the triads is quite nice. The narrative is punctuated with extracts from Some Gleanings of Oriental Wisdom, purportedly a book the geomancer is compiling, consisting of droll little anecdotes of ancient China, pointing some homespun Oriental moral.

There is a bibliographic puzzle which Wong might be persuaded to investigate in his retirement. The story collection The Feng Shui Detective was published in 2000. The Feng Shui Detective Goes South, a novel, was published in 2002. The volume reviewed here, entitled The Feng Shui Detective, was published in 2004 in the USA. It purports to be a republication of The Feng Shui Detective Goes South, but there seem to be quite a few textual variants, including in the chapter titles: for example, “A Perfect Murder” in one version becomes “A Perfect Death” in another, or possibly vice versa. This mystery may be a case for the Union of Industrial Mystics. (DK)


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