Currently reading: Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series

First, I saw this advertisement when I was on the TTC (subway).

From the angle I first saw the poster, I thought the second checkbox was for “lethally sexy” but “sexy” and “lethal” are just as good. I was immediately intrigued and if I had cell service on the TTC, I would have looked it up then and there.

I’m behind the times since The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, new in February 2012, was the third in the series. The first novel, The Water Rat of Wanchai, was published a year before, in February 2011 and the second book, The Disciple of Las Vegas, was published in June 2011. The advertisement invited you to visit the publisher’s website and I read the first chapter and wanted to read more.

It took a few months for me to get around to requesting the first book from the library. Could I handle the extra reading on top of my busy schedule? Even if I can’t really, I can “justify” that it is a related supplemental to my accounting studies since Ava Lee is a forensic accountant!

Reading some spoiler-free synopsis, I got the sense from the locales used that Ian Hamilton might be Canadian and that explains a lot of things, including the TTC campaign, of all books. A veteran writer, Hamilton published some books when he was in his twenties before entering public service for several decades. When he retired and had a serious medical scare, he sat down and penned Water Rat very quickly, filling out the details from personal knowledge from his extensive travels. Halfway through writing Water Rat he had an idea for a second novel and he began it immediately afterwards. His four-book deal with the The House of Anansi is huge and the four novels were lined up and ready. There are up to four more novels and we’ll just have to see how far into the series I actually get.

For the time being, I am drawn back to reading more chapters of Water Rat like a drug. This is despite crime fiction not the kind of genre I would go after but it is an “Asian American novel” in that is has a Chinese-Canadian protagonist that is, amazingly, penned by a sixty-year old white man. He claims that the name just came to him and he was inspired and started writing and developed the character. He’s not an accountant himself but then it’s not like an accounting primer in the least and is like a financial/heist thriller requiring fact-checking but not an accounting degree.

You can tell a man wrote the book when one line reads, “She’s proud of her body.” It is about as cliche from male writers as I can imagine but it fits the genre quite well and keeps with the exposition style required in a first novel introducing a character.

Otherwise, she’s a fun character to read about with all the implausible background to make her “reasonably” a one-woman operation chasing down bad debts. Her boss is a somewhat mysterious but powerful businessman in Hong Kong we know simply as “Uncle” since that is the respectful way Chinese people refer to family friends. Ava’s mother is a savvy and connected “princess wife”, the second wife of a powerful Hong Kong businessman who can help Ava along with his connections. Ava herself is blessed with good looks and clearly endowed with some sexy features to keep the male crime fiction readers beyond fascinated with her. In order for her to be independent, the Ava lee character knows a virtually secret and ultra-lethal martial art called bak mei and despite being raised in Toronto, Canada, she is fluent in the two major Chinese dialects to carry out business like a native.

I’m a little skeptical of the whole set up–she can’t fail. But I like the additional touches like that she is a runner so there is description of her favourite places to run in the exotic locales she travels to for work. Havergal College, a real private girls’ school in the Annex area of Toronto, is getting some free press as Ava is referred to as going there and it is relevant even 15 or so years out of high school. Additional interesting personality details conferred on Ava include her Christianity and her sexuality (she’s gay which so far saves Hamilton from dealing with sexual relationships). There’s quite a bit of name dropping since Ava comes from a privileged background and is very successful in her own right (LV, Shanghai Tang, Brooks Brothers, Cartier, Cole Hahn) and it reminded me of the exposition in Sweet Valley High novels to try to fill out the characters and I assume it’s part of the crime thriller genre.

Hamilton, the author, has traveled to around 60 countries for business and besides that a glamous crime thriller must move across and change countries you like do clothes every day, he clearly enjoys sharing his knowledge about where he’s traveled. Water Rat starts out with Ava in Toronto which is fun to read about the city where you live in a novel then she is off to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Trinidad, Guyana and British Virgin Islands. A friend of a friend is from Guyana and now some stuff I’ve known about her has more context and I know all about the seedy side of Guyana, which is not a common tourist destination.

I’m the type of person who when reading a novel wants it to be simple (no drama!) and for the case to wrap up inside the chapter. But there are twists and turns galore and we’re off to another country and following another lead! It was an interesting read beyond my own skepticism and hang-ups. I was looking out, like a vulture, for slip-ups by Hamilton handling a Chinese-Canadian female protagonist and I think he handled it well, for the genre. I’m interested in reading more in the series but with other books on the go, it will not be the next book I read.

While doing some background research, it all fell into place how a year ago, some of the Asian-American blogs were talking about Ava Lee. Specifically, the TV rights to the novels had been sold last year and Asian-American blogs wondered if an Asian-American actress would get cast and who. That is an amazing role for whoever lands it and I, too, am curious if one of my favourite underrated actresses will nab the part!

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