The descriptive copy on the back cover of THE WATER RAT OF WANCHAIwould have us believe that this is a story from “the early days” of Ava Lee, the protagonist of Hamilton’s thriller series. In reality this is the first novel of the series (from 2011), and this Picador paperback edition makes it available in the U.S. for the first time.
Why Picador published three titles of the series prior to this debut is a mystery. Luckily readers already familiar with the series can easily enjoy this novel and might never know it was the title that launched the series.
Forensic accountant Ave Lee is awakened very early one morning in her home in Tornado by a phone call from a prospective client. The man’s name is Andrew Tam. His company finances large purchase orders, and was recently swindled out of millions of dollars by a seafood company. Tam wants Ava to track down the stolen money and, if possible, return it.
Ava soon learns that Tam is the nephew of a friend of Uncle, the well-connected businessman and Ava’s long-time partner. The family connection is why Tam was referred to Ava instead of the job coming directly from Uncle. It’s an uncommon arrangement, but the money is more than enough for Uncle to agree to take on the case and Tam as a client.
Ava quickly learns the names of the seafood company partners and traces them to find the stolen money. The money trail leads her from Seattle to Hong Kong, Bangkok, the British Virgin Islands and eventually to Guyana. In Guyana Ava meets Captain Robbins, a man who runs country’s already corrupt police, politicians and criminals with a Godfather-like presence. To accomplish her mission Ava must pay Captain Robbins for permission to find one of the missing partners and the money.
Ava learns, however, that her payment is not enough to completely clear her from Captain Robbins’ sights. As she closes in on her target, Ava must pay more than expected to successfully complete her assignment.
Readers already acquainted with the series from the earlier published Picador titles will probably think Hamilton finally decided to provide a bit of back-story to Ava and Uncle. So we learn more about Ava’s complicated yet traditional Chinese immediate family, and Uncle’s shadowy early career and how he made his way to his home in Hong Kong. In truth, the author is introducing these characters and their background for the first time. But the back-stories are incorporated subtly and flow with the surrounding narrative. So even those who have enjoyed the previous titles will not feel any disorientation when finally reading this first title.
Hamilton’s prose style also feels familiar as he seamlessly weaves complex financial arrangements into the story’s dialogue and events without risking the pace with overly long exposition. He also allows Ava to demonstrate her martial arts skills when necessary – another trait already known to readers of the previously published titles.
There is also Hamilton’s sharp eye for detail, especially in the novel’s many far-flung and contrasting locales. Hamilton, however, spares no love for Guyana and portrays it as perhaps the most dysfunctional, broken and corrupt country on the planet. It seems over-the-top at first, until the author shows how it fits so well with both the errant company partner and the powerful man Ava must confront in order to simply get anything done.
So regardless if you choose to introduce yourself to the Ava Lee series with THE WATER RAT OF WANCHAI, as Hamilton intended, or read it as the latest of Picador’s releases, it is well worth your time and investment.
Female protagonists in crime/thriller series are few and far between. Ava Lee has claimed her unique place in this small pantheon thanks to her resourceful combination of mostly brains and occasional brawn. —Alan Cranis