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.
Endless stories of scams, most of them actual events, are what animated Hamilton when he sat down to write. Fond as he has become of Lee, the diminutive but dangerous private school graduate with the million-dollar Yorkville condo, she was an afterthought. “I don’t even remember where her name came from,” the Burlington, Ont., writer says, shrugging. The sexual orientation, though, was a deliberate touch. “As I kept writing,” says Hamilton, “I realized she was going to need more of a background. I got to thinking that in any relationship with a man she’d probably be dominant or he’d be like her and maybe she’d then be not so dominant; either way, I didn’t think it would suit her character. Then I had the brilliant idea to make her gay. So I went back into the first novel and set that out.”
He’s been learning his craft as he goes along—he’s cut down on the annoying brand references, although he insists “Hong Kongers are the most branded people in the world.” And he’s also learned that publishers think potential readers are alienated by titles with “rat” in them. Most of his European editions, playing off Ava’s ethnic origins, femininity and martial arts prowess, with predictable banality, have “tigress” in their titles. The American publisher Picador, which will launch Ava in the U.S. this month, decided to begin with book two, The Disciple of Las Vegas. Only after book five will they risk Water Rat.
Ava’s various facets have given Hamilton two distinct subgroups of fans: young Chinese-Canadian professional women, “the most complimentary of my correspondents,” and “a large number of lesbians.” They’re particularly pleased, the author says, that Ava’s sexuality is natural and understated. “Their only problem,” he laughs, “is the lack of sex scenes.” He finally gathered his courage and wrote one in The Scottish Banker. “I told a group of lesbian readers in North Bay about it and how I thought it was pretty good, and they said ‘We’ll be the judge of that.’ ” Given that he’s hit the mark so far, the verdict is liable to be positive.