PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


by Nick Macfie
Earnshaw Books HK$160

First, the good news. There is plenty to enjoy in this novel. Its main character, an English journalist who works for a news agency in Hong Kong, has a nice line in self-deprecatory humour and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the movies. Hadley Arnold is one of those hapless antiheroes who wander through a plot which is as much of a puzzle to them as it is to the reader.

There are several set-piece scenes of expatriate farce, some satirical, some bordering on the surreal. Often the dialogue is funny. And although there are moments of nastiness and violence, this is a good-humoured book, fond of its characters, none of whom gets seriously hurt in the end.

Hadley is just recovering from a hangover when two people from his past turn up in Hong Kong. One is the appalling Chris Torment, a fabulously vain and untalented movie actor, who has come to star in a film called I Love Hong Kong, co-starring the delectable Panda Koo. The other is a mystery American whose name may be Joe Stein. Joe is apparently very rich and powerful, with a habit of materialising in unexpected places and manipulating the lives of all those around him.

Joe's scheming, and Hadley's inability to figure out what's going on, form the essence of the plot. Though Hadley has disliked Chris since school, he rescues him from an attempted assassination at the hands of a group improbably called the Democratic Association for the Liberation of Jaffna Chinese. Chris repays this kindness by stealing Hadley's girlfriend. Later, the two men go to Sri Lanka and risk getting caught up in the separatist insurgency.

I should add the word 'apparently' to all the sentences above. Joe's manipulative hand is suspected in several of these apparent events. Do they belong to the real world of news or the contrived world of the movies? Is Joe out to stop Chris being chosen as the next James Bond, or is he out to prepare him for the role? Is Hadley a reporter, or an unwitting player?

There is space left, alas, for the bad news. The narrative is so confusing and full of loose ends that there is a danger some readers will cease to care what Joe is up to before the end is reached. While some of the dialogue is funny, other bits intended to raise a laugh have the buoyancy of concrete.

The good news for Nick Macfie's next novel, however, is that there's nothing wrong here that a good editor couldn't fix.