Water Rat of Wanchai, Ian Hamilton

This first in a new mystery series introduces us to a literally kick-butt heroine. Ava Lee is a world travelling, Starbucks Via swilling master of bak mei, an ancient Chinese art taught only to the highest echelon of kung fu warriors. She’s also a forensic accountant, a job that conjures images of middle aged men in business suits who crunch numbers rather than a young woman who travels the world and plays hardball with gang lords and crooked cops while hunting down money from people who cheat her clients.

In Water Rat, Ava travels from Toronto to Hong Kong to Guyana, dealing with the seedy underworld while investigating what is essentially a white collar crime. Ian Hamilton has a gift for language and a clear fascination with Asian culture. His descriptions of the places Ava visits are incredibly vivid and his descriptions of the food Ava eats are mouth watering. Water Rat invokes Asia and Asian cuisine in a way similar to Donna Leon’s depiction of Venice in her Brunetti mysteries. The book also talks a lot about Ava’s family; it’s a fascinating look at Hong Kong culture and the Chinese-Canadian community in Toronto, and I’d be interested to know how accurate it is.

The book is really more of a thriller than a mystery – Ava knows almost from the beginning who the bad guy is, and the story is more about how she can track him down and convince him to pay her client. As a thriller, the book is very exciting. There are lots of twists in the story and while I can certainly imagine it as a movie, the book never devolves into cardboard cut out action movie scenes. I’ve heard Ava compared to Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, and Ava is certainly as brilliant as Flavia. But I’d probably compare her more to Lisbeth Salander – though nowhere near as dark and disturbed, Ava is at least as kick-ass.

I love mysteries. I’m a fan of Hercule Poirot, Guido Brunetti, Inspector Alleyn, Inspector Lynley, John Rebus, Flavia de Luce, the list can go on forever. With its strong, fascinating heroine, and its travel lit and foodie lit style passages, Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series has officially made it on to that list. A note of warning: this book will make you crave dim sum.

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