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Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Asian Sherlocks pursue exotic crimes


THE FENG SHUI DETECTIVE, by Nury Vittachi. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004, 280 pp., $23.95 (cloth).

THE LAST KASHMIRI ROSE, by Barbara Cleverly. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003, 314 pp., $6.99 (paper).

The "feng shui detective," an elderly Singaporean named C.F. Wong, doesn't wear a trench coat or pack a .38 revolver. He does happen to be an expert geomancer who doubles as something of an Asian Sherlock. Called to examine a series of baffling phenomena, Wong unfailingly comes to rational conclusions. Alas, his astute mind never earns him much in the way of income, but he has hopes.

What does a feng shui detective do for his clients, you might wonder? The following exchange, in the first chapter of this wonderfully amusing work, provides a hint of the shenanigans to come. An inexplicable fire has broken out in an American's home and Wong discusses its cause with the wife.

"I have told the police," she said . . . "They weren't interested."

"Why not? Some problem?"

"Well, you could say that. The man who tried to kill us . . . died two years ago."

C.F. Wong wasn't sure how to reply. "Ah," he said. "Understand. Police don't like to investigate crimes committed by dead people."

Wong runs his operation from a tiny, decrepit office with Winnie Lim, who probably qualifies as the most self-centered, obnoxious and useless office assistant ever to appear in a mystery novel. On top of that, he is saddled with Joyce, a teenage Australian intern working on a high school project.

The story is populated by a stream of eccentric characters and amusing examples of Singapore's polyglot, multiethnic culture.

When the daughter of a wealthy Indian is kidnapped, the girl's mother insists on going to the beauty parlor before seeking assistance from the police. As she explains to Wong, " 'I was thinking, if this is a real kidnap, then I shall surely end up on television and in The Straits Times. And, Mr. Wong, I know it is not important for a man like you, but is vital for a woman . . . particularly true of a woman of a certain age such as me -- that she looks her best. I have not had my hair done for several weeks.' "

Nury Vittachi's entertaining narrative includes Malaysian witch doctors, punk rockers and Hong Kong triads, and eventually takes Wong and his understudy to Australia in a frenzied attempt to prevent a young woman's murder. Interspersed between chapters are excerpts from Wong's own book, full of aphorisms and stories about ancient Chinese sages.

Vittachi -- a humorist well known for his gossip column in the South China Morning Post and "Traveller's Tales" in the Far Eastern Economic Review -- serves up a tasty smorgasbord of modern Asian life.

Murder by phobia

While nowhere as ambitious in scope as "The Jewel in the Crown" -- Paul Scott's acclaimed "Raj Quartet" published between 1966 and 1975 -- like Scott, Barbara Cleverly's "The Last Kashmiri Rose" is a tightly woven mystery set in British-ruled India.

The year is 1922, and Scotland Yard Inspector Joe Sandilands, in Calcutta to train the Indian police in the emerging new science of forensics, is requested by Nancy Drummond, niece of acting Gov. Sir George Jardine, to look into the recent suicide of her friend. The two journey to Panikhat, a town 80 km away from Calcutta, where a cavalry unit called the Bengal Greys is garrisoned.

Sandilands learns that over the past decade the wives of several officers had met their deaths in a series of bizarre accidents. The first, a woman with a terror of fire, was burned to death in her own home. Another, with a fear of snakes, died from a cobra bite; a woman with a phobia of water drowned in a river; and another, with a dread of high places, fell from a horse and broke her neck. And the suicide victim, he was told by the dead woman's friend, could not stand the sight of blood; yet she died, wrists slashed, in her own tub.

Could these have been murder? And if so, what is the connection between them? That the women all died by the one thing they feared most not only ruled out coincidence, but suggested a diabolical killer who must have known the women well to learn of their innermost fears. Which means he must be someone in their social circle -- and therefore certainly not an Indian.

The killer's motive for his string of crimes turns out to be even more exotic than the methods used to dispatch his victims. The story ends with the not-so-subtle hint on the dangers that await Europeans who adopt some of the more extreme native customs.

More than the book's thoroughly researched historical background, it is the complex interweaving of colonial-era biases that makes Cleverly's story a real page-turner. Even the injection of a "my bed or yours?" passage, an apparent concession to Harlequin-style romance, somehow seemed to fit right in.



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