“I grew up probably like so many other people reading Agatha Christie, and I thought to myself ‘you know what we really need to have [is a] fun whodunnit set in the modern day.’” Vicki Virtue – author of the novel – cheerfully explained in an Instagram live about her inspiration for The Raffles Affair.
You can certainly see the renowned crime novelists’ influence in this installment by Virtue, along with the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which are both referenced in the novel itself. The main character, Victoria West, travelling to an “exotic” location to be met with a wedding and a crime-needed-solving, being an example of such influence.
(Related: A look inside Raffles Hotel’s La Dame de Pic)
Most of us reading this, being Singaporean, would chuckle at the thought of glass skyscrapers, concrete HDBs and the carefully designed Gardens by the Bay being “exotic”. However, when I saw the word being used several times to describe our city, I realized that perhaps I had to shift my perspective on how the novel should be approached.
Bear with me now. Reading this novel, I was accompanied by several negronis, which I would say added an extra layer of fun for me reading this novel.
I had hoped that I would be able to enjoy the story with the full ambience of the Writer’s Bar at Raffles Hotel itself, craft cocktails based on the novel – curated by Head Bartender Nicolas Alexander, shelves lined with decorative trinkets from around the region, sunlight streaming through the tall arched windows and all.
Instead, I had to settle for just the memory of both the cozy interior and the delightful drinks I had sampled from my last dine-in there. Negroni in hand, I began the novel, not entirely sure of what to expect out of a novel promoted and partially brought to life by a famous hotel.
The novel is set in the Raffles Hotel during the modern day. This is perhaps one of the most compelling parts of the book. Virtue’s descriptions of the sunny courtyards, luxurious suits, sumptuous food from several in house dining spots, and even the peaceful walkways give you just the right amount of detail to make you want to be there with the characters in the terracotta tiled hallways.
Raffles is presented as a peaceful island of its own amidst the busyness of the Beach Road area, quite set apart from the rest of Singapore. Which is relevant to staycationers who want to get away from the fact they cannot travel just yet.
Each of the plethora of characters are also quite distinct, and easily recognizable as the novel goes on. Virtue does a decent job of differentiating the lot of them and giving them quirky, charming, though often almost caricaturist qualities. None of them are terribly complex, perhaps even falling into stereotypes at times. Though there is a simple pleasure in that indulgence, which beckons back to childhood fantasies of wanting to be a beautiful secret agent travelling the world – just like the protagonist, West.
Anyhow,the plot is the real feature of any mystery novel – and this one had me quite hooked with its weaving of million-dollar business exchanges, investments, and communication tech. Love, loss and deceit might be tropes, but the way Virtue strung it all together still left me reeling and turning pages. Not to mention that the book is beautifully bound, allowing it to flop open to your page without needing the support of your fingers – a detail greatly appreciated.
I do feel compelled to mention that there were moments that caused me to be unable to suspend my disbelief, such as the ominous and ambiguous, “Chinese debacle” which in upon her solving it, puts Victoria West into the contact list of the head of the Raffles Hotel, Prime minister of Singapore and other prominent members of society. This is not terribly important in the larger picture, and it can probably be viewed as an occupational privilege of an international spy.
Overall, I was decently surprised at how much fun I had reading the novel. The trick was to not take it too seriously. Which was the whole point as a “fun whodunit”.
Calling back to the negroni in my hand – and subsequently in my blood – I realized I had wanted to recreate the atmosphere I remembered so fondly myself, at the Writer’s Bar. It was then I understood the appeal of the place, an odyssey away from home where you get to feel like the main character. As Virtue put it herself in the Instagram live, like “Cinderella”.
I would argue that the novel is best enjoyed within Raffles itself, where you can take in the sights, sounds and smells, and try the craft cocktails created based on the novel. If not, you can try ordering in the selection of craft cocktails they have, mirroring the novel’s bitter and sweet.