I have no idea where Cindy picked it up, but judging by the evidence, her copy’s well-travelled, just like its author.
The Water Rat of Wanchai is, in fact, the first novel of Canadian author Ian Hamilton, and while his story pit stops in Hong Kong, it starts out in Toronto before moving on to Seattle, then Thailand, then Guyana and finally to the British Virgin Islands.
In a video interview, Hamilton describes it as:
“[…] a fast-paced crime thriller about a young accountant—a different kind of accountant—who chases bad debts for a living. All over the world. And uses whatever means she needs to use to retrieve money for her clients.”
The mention of the word accountant doesn’t exactly quicken my pulse, but this one’s name is Ava Lee, and she’s a petite Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant in her early thirties who lives in posh Toronto, is private school educated and carries both Canadian and Hong Kong passports.
It’s complicated and morally hazy. It’s an environment in which I’d be so out of my depth that I wouldn’t last an hour.
How far will she go to resolve her clients’ problems? Her creator isn’t kidding when he says that:
“She will go as far as she needs to go: extortion, perhaps some physical violence—there’s no end to it actually.”
Ava Lee isn’t a knock-out in appearance only; she’s also a Kung Fu master and practitioner of lethal Bak Mei. She’s clever, glamorous and gay, and all of it is matter-of-fact and serves her character beautifully.
In this first Ava Lee novel, the money in question was lost by Andrew Tam, a Hong Kong businessman whose father is a “friend” of Ava’s employer, known only as Uncle—an éminence grise in Hong Kong’s power structure—a man with connections around the globe it seems.
The desperate Tam has been defrauded out of five million dollars by seafood exporters and business partners George Antonelli (who lives in Bangkok) and Jackson Seto (who moves around a lot, was born in Wanchai, but lives in Guyana). Frankly, it’s impossible to say which of the two is sleazier.
It’s a high risk and complicated contract that Uncle accepts and passes on to Ava with some reluctance. While the scam took place in the US (Seattle), the money is probably in an offshore account and the culprits are laying low in Asia and South America.
In a mess like this one, it’s easy to imagine the complexity and futility of legal action across so many jurisdictions.
Enter Ava Lee, who follows the money trail until it brings her face to face first with Antonelli in Bangkok, whose proclivities leave him vulnerable to blackmail, and then to Seto, who’s laying low and living very comfortably in Georgetown, Guyana.
Seto has connections inside the Guyanese police force, and this makes him the tougher nut to crack. However, Uncle’s long reach enables Ava to meet with Captain Rollins, head of the Guyanese Defence League (in reality, the Guyanese Defence Force) which combines all of the country’s security forces—the military and police.
The Captain is a dangerous ally and even more frightening enemy, and it will take all of Ava’s IQ power, moxie, skills, connections and fearlessness to even come close to reaching the endgame.
Ava is no Wonder Woman. She isn’t invulnerable, and she doesn’t see the world in white and black—good vs evil. She does, however, understand the importance of the role she plays in the lives of her clients, and she’s fiercely loyal to them, to her associates, to Uncle and to her family.
One of the disadvantages of choosing the Byzantine criminal environment of financial fraud for a series of thrillers is the exposition required to build the fictional world that the characters live in. It’s a problem more easily resolved cinematically, as it is in movies like The Big Short, in which ten minutes of “see” rather than seventy pages of “tell” do the trick painlessly.
Some readers love those sorts of details—I suspect my friend Cindy did—but I admit that in the first third of the novel, it was all a bit overwhelming for me. All I really needed to know was that it was crazy complicated.
However, once all the elements are in place, the plot takes off and there’s no looking back.
Ian Hamilton does so many things well, and that’s at least in part because he knows each of these regions and countries intimately as a result of his long career as a senior executive with the Canadian federal government, as a diplomat and even as a businessman, which gives him a terrific grasp of their official and covert political and economic networks. This allows him, for instance, to paint an extraordinarily believable picture of Hong Kong culture where power brokers like Uncle acquire clout by extending their network of contacts and influence, and in which it’s possible for a tough, independent feminist like Ava to grow up a world away from her father, a man who has three wives and maintains three separate households on different continents, and yet still refer to her parents as Mummy and Daddy.
It’s these fascinating contrasts and contradictions that make The Water Rat of Wanchai so original and so much fun to read, and why this is a series everyone will enjoy and rave about (except perhaps the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana).
NOTE TO READERS
Given that Ian Hamilton doesn’t shy away from delving into the moral turpitude of shady international financiers and corruption in the shrimping business, I was puzzled that he didn’t mention its ugliest, most abhorrent dimension: the use of slave labour in the Thai shrimping industry.
The ten books in the series so far:
- The Water Rat of Wanchai
- The Disciple of Las Vegas
- The Wild Beasts of Wuhan
- The Red Pole of Macau
- The Scottish Banker of Surabaya
- The Two Sisters of Borneo
- The Dragon Head of Hong Kong (novella)
- The King of Shanghai
- The Princeling of Nanjing
- The Couturier of Milan