By Ian Hamilton
When I came across Kevin Chong’s review of The Water Rat of Wanchai, I knew I had to read it, and promptly requested Olman to get it for my birthday in late April. How often do I get to read a stylish thriller about a Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant named Ava Lee who travels around the world kicking butt and breaking hearts? And the cover looks so alluring and tasteful in its hybridized Sino-exotica come James Bond-style graphics (instead of a gun, the Ava Lee silhouette carries a sleek briefcase).
First, let’s get a few complaints out of the way. We all know JB likes his cars fast and his martinis shaken. But does Ava Lee have to be Little Miss Designer Label? I mean, the girl can’t just write with a fountain pen and notebook, it has to be a Montblanc and Moleskine. She can’t just wear a nice watch, it has to be Cartier. She can’t just pack a simple suitcase, it has to be Louis Vuitton. Oh yeah, our heroine also lives in a swank high-rise in Toronto’s Yorkville, and drives an Audi 6. I understand that Hong Kong people may have perhaps a slightly more materialistic lifestyle than the average person. But come on!
I’m also of the same opinion as Chong when he noted that the first half of the book reads more like a travelogue than a thriller. It is understandable that Ava Lee would fly business class or check into luxury accommodation, but the description of her five-star hotel room is a little on the gratuitous side (though this does later make an amusing contrast to her divey far from “three-star” hotel room in Guyana, of which the author also goes into meticulous detail in describing).
You also have the sense that the author, who himself was a high-powered businessman and diplomat, is also kinda showing off that he also is familiar with this kind of lifestyle. The thing is, this may be vicarious lifestyle pornography for some, but for me, it’s boring and unimaginative. Ava Lee may be a top quality person, but can she at least have some taste that is interesting (meaning, not mainstream)? For the price of her swank condo, she could probably live in a townhouse in a hip area of TO, like say, Seaton Village, where I recently spotted Rachel McAdams walking with her bf Michael Sheen ;-)
And then there is the misguided Sinophile thing…
Yeah, it’s great that our heroine is smart, attractive and a lesbian to boot, but do we need to know that she also has “large breasts for a Chinese woman” and not only that, but “large enough that she [doesn’t] need a padded bra for them to get noticed.”
And yes, Ava Lee is also addicted to dim sum. There are quite a few passages where she’s having dim sum with a new client, dim sum with her mom or jonesing for dim sum when she’s in non-Chinese territory.
The thing is, professional Hong Kong business people, especially of the Chinese-Canadian variety, do not necessarily prefer to meet at popular (crowded) dim sum restaurants. Even though the wheeled carts are passé, noisy Cantonese families are distracting enough, even in the fancy places. And tables for two are few. Going for dim sum is a social activity where it’s ideal to go in groups. So it strikes me as odd to meet for a serious business lunch with a new client in such a place. It’s Toronto -- there are plenty of quieter, calmer restaurants (Chinese or non) in which to conduct a business lunch.
And of course, he had to mention the chicken feet! Again, not every Chinese person orders this! I certainly don’t! It’s obvious that Hamilton is targeting a Western market that is interested in some immersion in Asian exoticism. But if Hamilton is indeed aiming for cultural authenticity, he should've used “yum cha” instead of dim sum.
All right, now that I got my white guy lamely striving for Chinese authenticity rant out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the book, which unfolds as a pretty engaging story. There is a lot of setup at first about Ava’s background and how she fell into forensics accounting and working for a mysterious Uncle, who may or may not be a triad boss. Uncle feels obligated to help an old friend and puts her on a case where a business associate took off with 5 million dollars from his friend’s son. Once Ava Lee embarks on her investigation -- which takes her to Seattle, Hong Kong and eventually Guyana and the British Virgin Islands -- it gets quite absorbing.
Ava’s arrival in Guyana is memorable in its description of a destitute country with a barely functional infrastructure and our protagonist as a fish out of water. It’s in Guyana where Ava Lee has no choice but to involve herself with the corrupt military officials in order to carry out her mission. And eventually things get sticky, very sticky indeed for our heroine, and you get caught up in the suspense of whether Ava can extricate herself from the situation. The thing I liked about it is that it maintains a consistently naturalistic realism – nothing gets too over the top in terms of violence or drama, though there is some action (Ava gets to use her super elite bak mei skills a couple of occasions) and plenty of tension and suspense.
On Goodreads, some readers complained about how they couldn’t really relate to Ava because she doesn’t reveal many vulnerabilities. I don’t have that problem. This is a crime thriller, not literature about losers. I’d rather not see dig deep into Ava’s neuroses or whatever repressed psychological issues she may have, and wanna just see her kick some white male butt and solve cases. Did we have to probe into Parker’s psyche in any of the Parker books? Nope, nor do we need to with Ava. Just don't get too carried away with describing whatever designer accoutrements she possesses, please.
Despite that, the Ava Lee story is a great premise that has the potential to carry a series. I would more likely read the next Ava Lee installment over Flavia de Luce. Sorry Flavia!