By Brian Bethune - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 0 Comments
There’s a commonality to the questions Ian Hamilton has faced as his series of thrillers featuring Ava Lee has grown ever more popular. There’s the question of brand mania: readers lose track of the number of times Lee mentions her addiction to Starbucks Via instant coffee. There’s the use of the word “rat” in the title of Hamilton’s first novel, The Water Rat of Wanchai, that apparently sends publishers around the bend. But nothing has popped up more often than some variant of the response he had from his wife, Lorraine, after he told her he was writing a story about a young, gay, Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant and martial arts expert who recovers money lost in financial scams: “They say you should write about what you know.” To which the 66-year-old grandfather of seven can only reply, “I was in the seafood business.”
That’s actually an appropriate response. Author and character may not share much personal resemblance, but the plot in Water Rat turns on a fraud involving Lee’s Hong Kong clients and $5 million worth of shrimp. When Lee sourly contemplates her new job—“of all the characters she had dealt with, the seafood guys were the worst; it was as if they were programmed to steal”—she’s speaking for Hamilton. And all the scams in the novels, including the fifth and newest, The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (out on Feb. 16), feature mostly Asian clients in mostly Asian locales.
This is all stuff Hamilton knows intimately. He made his first business trip to Asia, in pursuit of seafood, in 1989. Before a serious health scare convinced him to ditch that career in favour of writing in 2009, he was there often, incessantly questioning everyone about how things really worked. “If you’re in China and you’re having a dinner with a guy,” Hamilton says in an interview, “and he starts talking about how his son is at York University and how much the son loves Broadway, if you don’t ask for [the son’s] name and his phone number and his email address and start looking for things you can do for him, you have no business.” Lee’s first move is usually to find out who can smooth her path to stolen money and how much it will take to secure his help.