Review: The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee Book 2), Ian Hamilton

The Disciple of Las Vegas, book 2 in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, is even better than the first. The mystery is tighter, with more emphasis on the actual mystery than on the exotic locales and cuisines. As a mystery lover and a woman, I also appreciated the additional focus on the mystery and the lessened attention on Ava’s beauty and effect on various men. There’s still the hot guy who is disappointed by Ava’s homosexuality, which if I remember correctly, also happened in the first book, and characters still comment on Ava’s looks, but there seems to be less emphasis on how people underestimate Ava because of her looks. This leaves more time to develop the mystery, which I actually found more exciting and easier to follow than the first book.

Chinese-Filipino billionaire Tommy Ordonez hires Uncle and Ava to track down $65 million stolen from his company in Canada, which his younger brother Philip manages. Ava’s investigation leads her to discover that the stolen money is linked to a gambling scam involving poker legend David “the Disciple” Douglas and his partner Jeremy Ashton. Hamilton again manages to make a financial crime as exciting as murder, and I loved reading the scenes where Ava uses bak mei to subdue bad guys.

As a Filipino, I am thrilled to have the Philippines featured in a Canadian book, especially a mystery, since the only Western fiction books I’ve seen that featured the Philippines and Filipinos are literary fiction, usually written by authors with Filipino roots themselves. (I’d love to be proven wrong, by the way. If you know of any well-written fiction books written by a Westerner, with a Filipino character or the Philippines as a setting, where the character/setting is as mainstream as a Chinese/Japanese character/setting, please let me know.) So I loved having aspects of the Philippines shown in Hamilton’s book, like the express line at the airport and balikbayan boxes (minor correction, Mr. Hamilton: balikbayans are Filipinos returning home; the boxes are called balikbayan boxes). I would’ve loved a scene with mouthwatering Filipino cuisine as well, but that’s just me.

One thing I would have liked changed, and this, again, is as a Filipino: When Ava asks Uncle about the long lines of Filipinas at the airport lugging balikbayan boxes, Uncle says they are all domestic workers flying home. Ava then remembers her own Filipina nanny and speculates that these domestic workers sending foreign currency home probably make up a large portion of the country’s GNP. Somewhat accurate — there are certainly lots of Filipinos working abroad and sending money home, and a lot are nannies and domestic workers.

However, there are also lots of Filipinos working abroad in all sorts of professions: nurses, doctors, English teachers, and businesspeople. Perhaps I’m sensitive because of an incident a few years ago where a dictionary in Europe defined a Filipino as a domestic worker. Perhaps I’ve just noticed how in books (not just this one), if a character is labelled Filipino, he/she is usually household help or part of the maintenance staff. Perhaps it’s just time writers go beyond the stereotype and show Filipinos in other lines of work, eh?

Overall, The Disciple of Las Vegas is a fast-paced, exciting financial mystery. There are some bloody scenes, so if that’s not your thing, be warned. I also thought the Jackie Leung subplot was unnecessary, given how action-packed the main mystery was already. Still, overall, a good book, better than the first.

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.