Reading for Pure Entertainment, Part I: The Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton

So, in between reading about World War I and Israel, I discovered a few extremely fun books – series actually, which is even better! – and thought I’d share them, because they are such a joy to read. But I’m going to have to split this into two parts; this one’s going to be fairly long because I love talking about these books! It’s such a relief to read something delightful and relatively easy in between the oh-so-serious nonfiction.

I came across Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai in the library – the librarians have a “recommended” shelf which they compile themselves, may they live forever – and after digesting my “serious” reading, I treated myself to this. I gulped it down whole and immediately went to the Amazon site to download every single thing I could find authored by Ian Hamilton, including Water Rat as I know I’m going to read it again. The writing is straightforward, easy to read, but there is a quality there that will bring me back to it, many moments that are worth savouring. I have a problem with novels that are essentially screenplays, that once read are good for nothing. (I hope John Grisham’s not reading this.) Anyway, this series is not like that. Beach read, yes; throwaway, no.

51cbFIpiSNL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-55,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_The Water Rat of Wanchai is the first in a series of books – crime thrillers, really – about Ava Lee, Hamilton’s remarkable heroine. Ava is Chinese-Canadian, an accountant, and a martial arts expert. I know, does she also play the violin? Sorry, no, that would be going over the top. Ava is a forensic accountant who hunts down stolen money and bad debts and generally punishes – and I mean punishes -the nefarious. But only when she needs to. She is also gay – and Catholic – and a determined consumer of good food. Interesting, no? I’m always hungry after reading one of her adventures and have to go for dim sum although Ava likes chicken feet and I do NOT.

Ava is a matter-of-fact girl with a matter-of-fact wardrobe. On her down time she wears Adidas track pants and a black t-shirt – Giordano, a Hong Kong brand. For work, she wears Brooks Brothers Italian-collared, French-cuffed shirts and either a black pencil skirt or black pants, cufflinks, a gold cross necklace, black pointy-toed pumps and sticks an ivory hairpin in her immaculate chignon. She’s good to go, and those pointy toes are going to come in handy. After ten books of the same clothing it can get repetitive, but there is a ritualistic aspect to Ava’s toilette I find appealing. It’s like 007 visiting Q in the basement and gathering up his toys before setting off to deal with some megalomaniac with an eye patch. She doesn’t wear much makeup, just a touch of red lipstick and mascara, a look I’ve never been able to pull off, but then I can’t kick ass and eat chicken feet like Ava can either.

It’s tremendous fun to read the Ava books. I know, I can’t stop saying it. She is the daughter of a second wife – I didn’t know this still happens but apparently it does – and is always dealing with complex family issues. Her business partner is an older man she calls Uncle who is based in Hong Kong – Ava lives in Toronto – and occasionally she hires his goons to help with a project. I say “goons” in the nicest, most complimentary way possible because they are actually very sweet and devoted to Uncle and Ava. Essentially, Ava and Uncle are contacted about by a client about a problem – usually money whisked away in a shady deal – and Ava goes to work looking for the money which means looking for the thief as well. Once found, she politely approaches them, lays out her information, and asks them to pay up and return their ill-gotten gains. Faced with a petite Asian girl in her Brooks Brothers shirt and tidy hairdo, these guys always tell Ava to get lost, only not so politely. Ava shrugs, makes a trip to the hardware store to buy duct tape, and then the fun really begins. Sometimes bad guys only need minor persuasion and a kitchen cleaver suffices, and sometimes Ava is dealing with a major player and engages in a full-on let-slip-the-dogs-of-war situation with heavy artillery and everything. Uncle and Ava have a saying, “People do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Essentially, they won’t return money because it’s the right thing to do, but they will do it when they’re tied to a kitchen chair and Ava is wielding a cattle prod. There is something about hardened criminals and idiots underestimating this pretty accountant that is absolutely hilarious. In one job in which Ava is forced to travel to the Faeroe Islands, she is accosted in her hotel by drunken Russian sailors who remark that they’ve never had Chinese c–t before and then make a grab at her. Ava swiftly ties them into knots, then leans over their semiconscious, bloodied potential-rapist selves and asks politely, “How did you enjoy your Chinese c–t?” I giggled for days over this. Every woman knows she is vulnerable if a man takes an unkind interest in her, so it is vicariously fabulous when one woman in this situation comes out on top, because it happens so rarely, sadly. You go, Ava!

Most of Ava’s adventures take place in Asia, too, which is another reason I enjoyed reading them so much. I used to live in Malaysia and Singapore, and my father lived in Thailand, so I traveled extensively around the region and visited many of the places featured in the books. The descriptions are very accurate and bring it all back to me, and I worry about Ava not wearing sunscreen.

I also lived in London, and at one point Ava goes there for a job. There she meets with someone who should know better who insults her horribly with racist remarks. I’m sorry to say, I also witnessed a lot of racism while there. I’m only half-Asian so people didn’t detect my ethnicity which meant that, well, let’s just say I got to hear some very distressing opinions. Ava’s experiences there didn’t surprise me a bit, although it does make me sad and furious on her behalf. Of course not every English person is a racist but for some reason it seems more widespread than it is here in Canada. Anyway, I hope Ava goes back to properly deal with that racist MP and remembers to pop some duct tape in her Chanel handbag. (Oh my god, I’m so involved.)

The other thing that my ruminating on Ava has brought up is all the similarities in my favourite crime novel characters. Ava Lee, Aud Torvingen, Jack Reacher (Lee Child), Gabriel Allon (Daniel Silva), Raylan Givens (Elmore Leonard), Pendergast (Preston/Child)…they’re all calm, incredibly capable but not show-offy about it, intelligent and well-informed about their field, and while they all have a sense of humour, they’re no comedians. Interesting that these are human qualities that we seem to find universally appealing, no? Anyway, this line of inquiry is only half-baked, I need a few more showers to think about it before I come to any more conclusions.

One shower actually led me into this line of thought: Ava is actually the third gay-detective-martial arts character I’ve read about and I’m wondering about the trend. The first is, of course, the famous Lisbeth Salander who is not, strictly speaking, gay (I believe she’s bisexual). I don’t think she’s trained in martial arts either. At any rate, she’s pretty combat-ready. The second is Aud (rhymes with “shroud”) Torvingen, Nicola Griffith’s 6-foot-tall blonde hard case. I am a big fan of Aud. I find it interesting that when faced with petites like Lisbeth and Ava, men tend to feel that they can roll right over them, and I get that, and then I enjoy the mayhem that the tiny chicks visit on the big men. But Aud is huge! She is essentially Brienne in Game of Thrones. Tall, blonde, and totally intimidating. Yet guys take her on! What are they thinking?  It’s kind of like my response to a big meal of Indian food – it’s a lot of food, and I know it’s going to hurt me later, but I’m going for it! I think I can win.

Anyway; it’s interesting that Nicola Griffith’s books are categorized as “Lesbian fiction” in the Vancouver Public Library website catalogues. I’m wondering if there’s a whole genre there and why it’s important or significant that these three women are gay? Is it connected to independence? Both Aud and Ava build significant relationships, so no. Children aren’t mentioned in either series so I can’t speak to that. I wonder if being gay gives them more of a lone-wolf aspect? I emailed Ian Hamilton about this and he very kindly replied:

Her sexuality? I saw it as a way of keeping her completely independent, and if she did get into a relationship, it would allow her to maintain control without it reflecting badly on her or a partner. As  you know since you’ve read the books, I treat her sexuality as the most natural thing imaginable. There is no drama and no angst – and little or no sex.
I was warned by my editor (a female) that I might be accused of appropriation, but that hasn’t happened. If fact, the lesbian community has been very supportive of the books, and I was even nominated for a Lambda Award for best lesbian crime/mystery/thriller. One thing they particularly like is is the fact her sexuality is treated in the most matter of fact manner, as just a part of a rich, complicated life.

So there you have it – I poked a bit about why being gay would necessarily make someone more independent or why it would give her detachment about relationships, as in my experience gay people are exactly like straight people, but he meant the way she was perceived by other characters in the book. I was actually surprised by the appropriation thing suggested by his editor; I don’t see why any author shouldn’t write about any kind of character they like, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or what have you. The Lambda Award is also interesting. There’s a genre called “lesbian/crime/mystery/thriller?” That’s so specific! I also kind of wonder about fiction involving a gay character being categorized as “gay literature” and would not like to see either Hamilton’s or Griffith’s works being pigeonholed in this respect. Good books are good books. It’s like dismissing George R.R. Martin’s books as simply “fantasy” – yes, but if you like fiction you’ll like Game of Thrones!

I’m glad that Ava is Chinese, Canadian, gay, a martial arts expert, the daughter of a second wife, a Catholic, a foodie – these make her a rounded character and I for one became fond of her very quickly. I’m curious about her taste in books, music, the lot. Did she vote for Harper in the last election? What does she think about Rob Ford? I bet he’s got some stolen money hidden away.

I don’t usually write such gushing reviews, but this series came into my life in the middle of a bad cold, a rainy January, and between two difficult books, so it brightened a few days for me and I’m as excited as I was when I discovered Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series. Part II of Reading for Pure Entertainment is about the other series I discovered this month….


These are what Ava wears to kick bad guys in the ear. I won’t wear mine to a wedding because you have to stand around too much.



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2 responses to “Reading for Pure Entertainment, Part I: The Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton

  1. This sounds like a fantastic book. I’ll definitely get it from our library. I love it when authors get back in touch with you.