Crime Pays

Reviewed by Joel Martineau

Tucked inside my review copy of The Water Rat of Wanchai, a tastefully designed bookmark promoting House of Anansi’s Spiderline imprint proclaims, Crime pays. Given the international dominance of twenty-first-century bestseller lists by girls with dragon tattoos and number one ladies’ detective agencies, we can appreciate Anansi’s glee in introducing the Ava Lee series, with four novels circulating and two more written and in the publishing pipeline, according to author Ian Hamilton’s website. That pipeline will soon swell when Picador USA begins distributing the series.

The Water Rat of Wanchai lays the foundation; tellingly, it contains 412 pages set in ten-point font, while The Disciple of Las Vegas, The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, and The Red Pole of Macauweigh in at 357, 340, and 326 pages respectively, in twelve-point. Hamilton draws on his experiences as a journalist, an executive with the federal government, a diplomat, and a businessman with international links to shape Ava Lee into an intriguing protagonist who addresses contemporary concerns. In her early thirties, Chinese Canadian, gay, and well-educated, she has left a promising accounting career to pursue an uncertain specialty—forensic accounting—which in practice means tracing, chasing, and retrieving misappropriated funds. The money typically flows to and through various offshore havens, so Ava hops onto jets the way gumshoes of yore hopped into their Detroit-built cars. She uses the technologies of our times—her laptop, Google, SIM cards, fax machines, GPSs, and so on—to combat the crimes of our times. And she works with a grey eminence, Uncle Chow, an elderly but still vital Hong Kong power-broker whose networking abilities reach to whatever level and into whatever cranny Ava (and plot advancement) requires.

The purchase and plausibility of the plots vary. The Water Rat of Wanchai involves containers of frozen shrimp disappearing somewhere near Seattle. Of course the suppliers and five million dollars are also gone, with Ava Lee hot in pursuit. At times, this first novel seems more concerned with introducing Ava and Uncle, explaining their methods and contextualizing their characters, than with creating suspense. The second and third installments treat more colourful matters: the online-poker phenomenon in The Disciple of Las Vegas and art forgery in The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. The Red Pole of Macau retreats from such topical issues into familial concerns and perhaps signals Hamilton’s intention to give supporting characters more prominent roles. Successful series fiction—crime or whatever—tends to develop characters we care for, and Ava plus her supporting cast continue to evolve. Uncle frequently hints that he desires a lesser role and urges Ava to connect with May Ling, the forceful wife of one of the richest industrialists in China; father Marcus and mother Jennie increasingly turn to Ava to solve family-related financial misadventures; her siblings seem more prominent in each ensuing novel; and new lover Maria quietly seeks more time with Ava and more heft in the series.

The appeal of the series, however, derives primarily from Ava Lee, and Hamilton packs tremendous potential into his heroine. In her early thirties, she balances a strong education and some realistic work experience with youthful vitality; raised and living in Canada, she reflects the humility and politeness that many Canadians imagine as national strengths; of Chinese heritage and able to speak some Cantonese but no Mandarin, she signifies particularly current racial, cultural, and national identities; extremely fit and a master of bak mei, a martial art that features quick, accurate strikes at the most sensitive parts of the body such as the nose, eyes, ears, throat, neck, and underarms, she wields a lightning quick, lethal physical prowess; and, as a successful career woman, she uses her considerable income to live an über-chic, brand-conscious lifestyle.

Hamilton uses his likeable heroine and the series as a whole to advance cosmopolitan values and often simply to revel in differences. While always foregrounding the fickleness of global capital shifts, in The Water Rat of Wanchai, he portrays poverty in Guyana and suggests that with no economy, no work, no education, and no expectations, the impoverished have no escape. In The Disciple of Las Vegas several set pieces sensitively explore First Nations options and help explain when, how, and why so much gambling migrated from Nevada to native reserves and ultimately to the Internet and offshore addresses. A passage in The Wild Beasts of Wuhan focuses on the exploitation of foreign workers in Hong Kong and the Sunday congregation of Filipina yayas in Central Park and Indonesian maids in Victoria Park; several chapters later, Ava touches down in the Faeroe Islands, and Hamilton knits a brilliant strand about Jóhanna av Steinum sweaters into the narrative. In addition to addressing the continuing role of the Triad in Asian economies, The Red Pole of Macauranges from analysis of casino investment to discussion of qi and Taoism. This wide variety of interests combines with the attractive cast and the contemporary concerns to form a refreshingly relevant series. This reader will happily pay House of Anansi for the fifth installment, The Scottish Banker of Surabaya.


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