book review

Kicking Ass and Accounting for Cash: a review of The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton

Ava herself is one of my favourite new characters. She’s just got it together, and I love that she can by turns break noses and charm foreign diplomats, that if she needs to promise hundreds of thousands of dollars or blackmail sleazeballs, she doesn’t balk.

“I need to locate Seto. You know where he is, or at the very least how I can contact him. You have two options. You tell me what I want to know, or I’m going to make a hundred copies of that photo…and send them to your wife, your kids, your Atlanta neighbours, your parents, any siblings you have, your in-laws, and anyone you’re doing or have ever done business with.”

The Water Rat of Wanchai, Ian Hamilton

I first caught wind of the mysterious Ava Lee on a subway poster advertising her adventures in the book The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, by Ian Hamilton. Ava is fearless, sexy, and lethal, the poster proclaimed, not to mention her profession: she’s a forensic accountant. Yay?

That was enough to pique my interest. Wuhan is the third book in Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, which are currently being published two a year. I picked up last year’s debut of the series The Water Rat of Wanchai to see what all the fuss was about. With an ass-kicking main character, an intriguing conundrum to solve, and a setting that encompasses Toronto, Seattle, Hong Kong, Thailand, Guyana, and the British Virgin Islands, Water Rat is off to a good start.

Ava is no ordinary accountant. Born in China to a successful businessman’s second wife (he has three families, each on a different continent) and brought up in a rich Chinese-Canadian community just north of Toronto, Ava Lee is extraordinary right from the start. Educated at a posh girls’ school, a disciple of bak mei, a traditional, exclusive, and highly lethal form of kung fu, fashionable and label-obsessed, gay, globe trotting, and bored with traditional accounting, Ava defies categorization. She and an older family friend, whom she respectfully refers to as “Uncle,” run a forensic accounting business: they will recover huge amounts of appropriated money for a modest one third of what they recover. And they’ll do it by any means necessary.

Uncle has the connections on many continents, and seems to arrange most of the cases they take on. Petite and unassuming—yeah right—Ava is the muscle, and they’re both the brains of the operation. Ava knows when to look the part of the innocent, when to turn on the sex appeal, and when to crack some bones. She impersonates members of the treasury department and various banks when need be. She uses charm and chloral hydrate in equal amounts to get what she wants: the money that her clients have lost.

In Water Rat, one of Uncle’s oldest friends comes to him for help: his nephew Andrew is floundering when he loses five million dollars after financing a rather fishy seafood operation. The operation goes fish-belly up (okay, no more oceanic puns, I promise) and the owners have disappeared with the money that rightfully belongs to Andrew. Ava takes the case and tracks down the owners of the seafood operation, George Antonelli and Jackson Seto. Using bribery, blackmail, violence, and a perfectly worn Brooks Brothers outfit, Ava finally ends up in Guyana, paying off the local police chief/crime lord Captain Robbins to help her corner Seto and close the deal.

Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and the read wouldn’t be that interesting if everything went off without a hitch. In fact, the first part of the book, which is necessarily a bit slow as the main characters and the nature of the business are established, is fairly plodding and routine. There’s a bit too much focus on mundane details; authenticity in establishing a Chinese-Canadian community is important, but knowing exactly which types of dim sum Ava enjoys most at which restaurants in which areas of Toronto isn’t absolutely necessary for the overall narrative. And Hamilton does that thing that some Canadian writers seem to do, covering the locations in excruciating detail, naming exactly which streets, cross streets, and neighbourhoods his characters visit. (This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. See Alyssa York’s otherwise lovely Fauna, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted, or Carol Shields’ Larry’s Party for other examples of this strange exactitude, as though the writers or editors are worried that people won’t be able to place the setting in Winnipeg or Toronto without mentions of Linden Woods or Jones Avenue or Castle Frank subway station.) As Ava begins the hunt for Antonelli and Seto, watching how she conducts business is interesting for the reader, but there’s no real urgency in the narrative. It’s all very interesting but not exactly page-turning. This may be a function of setting up a series (there are three books published so far and Hamilton has finished writing book six) and all the details of character and plot may be necessary to the larger oeuvre, but it’s also a bit boring.

Thankfully, the plot takes off as we hit Trinidad and Guyana, and Hamilton’s extensive world travel and knack for detail becomes a huge asset. I feel like I was in Port of Spain and Georgetown myself. The heat, the architecture, the smells, the dangers, and the local corruption: it’s all incredibly real. I’ve never read anything set in Guyana, and it was so intriguing to experience this part of the story, not to mention watching Ava’s brilliantly cool handling of the situation slip away from her as things start to go very wrong.

The peripheral characters, including Ava’s demanding mother, her mysterious father (who appears in only one scene), her sister, her bak mei partner Daniel, and of course Uncle himself are all fascinating, and I wanted more of them. Were this a standalone novel, these tantalizing hints at Ava’s life outside her business would be more frustrating. As it is, it’s clear they’re all being lined up for more in-depth exploration in future books, and I look forward to getting to know them.

Ava herself is one of my favourite new characters. She’s just got it together, and I love that she can by turns break noses and charm foreign diplomats, that if she needs to promise hundreds of thousands of dollars or blackmail sleazeballs, she doesn’t balk. My book club often discusses the success of one gender writing the other. Often it just doesn’t work, and a very male writing style will mar a supposedly female point of view (or vice versa). Hamilton handles his young Chinese-Canadian female lead with grace and authenticity. There are, perhaps, a few too many mentions of her slipping her panties on and off, or taking out a “clean bra” each day (this might be a male misconception of how lingerie works or just one of Ava’s character traits), and I’m not sure if this comes of the overly obsessive attention to detail that permeates the book or if this is the pitfall of writing from the opposing gender’s point of view.

In spite of this finickiness of detail, however, The Water Rat of Wanchai is a solid and exciting read and a great start to the series. Book two, The Disciple of Las Vegas, picks up directly where this one leaves off, and I’m anxious to jump into it. I look forward to more globe trotting, more ass kicking, and more Ava!

Three and a half out of five blue pencils

The Water Rat of Wanchai, by Ian Hamilton, published by House of Anansi Press, © 2011.

Available at the Anansi site, Amazon, Indigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

10 thoughts on “Kicking Ass and Accounting for Cash: a review of The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton”

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  2. I think you could have gotten away with one more fish-themed pun, just sayin’…

    I’m glad you decided to read this based on the subway poster that I, too, reacted to with curiosity. Not enough curiosity to pick up the book, however.

    Regarding the reference to specific locations within the city, it reminds me of name-dropping. I often wonder if the authors are worried their readers won’t believe they know what they’re talking about unless they point out details that somehow prove they’ve lived/travelled extensively in these areas.

    1. Yeah, it’s strange. And I imagine I’m more finally attuned to it when books are set in places I’ve lived. Maybe books in New York constantly mention street names and I just don’t notice as much, but it seems to me a trait a lot of Toronto writers share (and I can’t imagine a lot of readers care about the name of a specific grocery store at the end of a specific street when you can just say “popped into the greengrocer’s around the corner for some lettuce” and it will work just as well).

      Interestingly, I’d recommended this book to my mom, who at first had trouble getting into it for exactly the same reason–she found the Toronto details more bothersome than helpful to the story. But as she got more into it she fell totally in love and has now read all 3 of the books out so far.

  3. I don’t think so, because at least in the first book her sexuality is more a sidenote than anything else. She’s not in any danger of falling for any of the men she’s working with/working over, but romance of any sort doesn’t figure into Water Rat at all.

    If I were handed Water Rat without knowing anything about the author, I would still guess from the writing style that it’s a man doing the writing, and yet the female point of view is authentic. I’m going to sound anti-feminist, perhaps, but this could be because Ava is *so* no-nonsense. He doesn’t get the way she would emotively react to a situation “wrong” because she keeps her feelings in check, which is totally in character for her.

  4. Do you think the “authenticity” of Hamilton writing a female lead is helped by the fact she’s attracted to women? And how does he handle the whole “hitting on a straight woman” thing?

    I mean, as a heterosexual male, I obviously believe that all women are barely contained volcanoes of lesbian urges just waiting for a suggestive wink and two glasses of white wine to erupt. But some part of me also suspects that maybe this isn’t quite the case for all women (at least afte university)… but I suspect it’s a common enough belief that I’m always interested to see how other men portray the issue.

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