Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of thrillers, they think of, perhaps, espionage thrillers, psychological thrillers or medical thrillers. The truth is that thrillers can come in several sizes and shapes. And they can feature any number of different kinds of protagonist. Let’s take a look at one such protagonist today and turn the spotlight on Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai, the first of his Ava Lee novels.
Lee is a Canadian of Chinese background (her mother moved the family to Canada when Lee was small). Her ‘home base’ is Toronto, but she works for Chow Tung, the Hong-Kong-based owner of a company that recovers stolen money. Lee is a forensic accountant whose specialty is tracing money and returning it. Chow’s company is a bit ‘off the beaten path,’ mostly used by people who’ve been swindled out of large amounts of money, can’t find recourse anywhere else, and are desperate to get that money back.
Such a person is Andrew Tam, whose company, Dynamic Financial Services, arranges credit for large corporate purchases. The company’s been bilked out of almost five million dollars in money and inventory, and Tam knows that if the money isn’t recovered, it’ll mean the end for his business. His uncle is a friend of Chow’s, so the case is soon referred to Lee.
After some initial investigation, Lee settles on George Antonelli and Jackson Seto as ‘people of interest.’ They’re the business partners who signed the agreement that caused the problem, and are most likely to know what happened to the money. She traces Antonelli’s whereabouts to Bangkok and travels there after a stop in Hong Kong to make the arrangements she needs.
Not surprisingly, Antonelli tells Lee that Seto is the one who knows where the money is and has all the access to it. After verifying that Antonelli is telling the truth, Lee goes on to Georgetown, Guayana, where Seto is staying.
Once she arrives in Georgetown, Lee comes up against a major problem. Things in Guyana only happen if its ‘godfather’ Captain Robbins wants them to happen. He has control of the criminal element, the police, and many government people as well. So Lee knows that she’s going to have to get his co-operation if she’s to stay alive, let alone find Seto and the money owed her client. That’s especially going to be the case if Seto happens to be a friend of Robbins’.
Robbins agrees to work with Lee – for a price – and two form a very uneasy alliance. Now Lee is faced not only with tracking Seto down and trying to get the money, but also with keeping tabs on an extremely dangerous ‘temporary business partner.’ And of course, there’s no guarantee the money will be forthcoming. If it isn’t, Lee faces even more danger.
This is a novel with several elements of the thriller. The pace is, for the most part, quick, and there are several ‘action’ scenes. There are some narrow escapes, menacing types and so on. The ‘chess game’ with Robbins adds to the suspense, too.
Robbins has a great deal of money, power and people at his disposal, so he is formidable. But Lee is not without resources. She is smart, quick-thinking and well-trained in the martial art of bak mei. She’s no comic-book superhero, but readers who are tired of the ‘woman as victim’ motif in crime fiction will appreciate her. And she can depend on Chow. He’s not just her employer; he is also her mentor, and does what he can to support her. In fact, she calls him ‘Uncle.’ As a former triad leader, he has useful contacts in many places in the world.
Like many thrillers, this one requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. In real life, for instance, most of us wouldn’t be able to do the kind of travel that Lee does without spending at least some time recovering from jet lag. That said though, Lee doesn’t have superpowers or an array of unusual hidden weapons. And the way in which she traces the missing money and gets the answers she needs doesn’t require a real stretch of credibility.
Lee is ethnically Chinese, although she thinks of herself as Canadian. In fact, she’s fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin as well as English. So readers learn some things about traditional Chinese family culture as well as the traditional way of getting things done in Hong Kong. There is a sizeable Chinese community in Toronto, and readers learn about that as well.
Lee makes several stops along the way to finding Tam’s stolen money, and in each place, Hamilton gives readers a look at the local life. So in some ways, the novel is a ‘snapshot’ of Bangkok, of Georgetown, and of the British Virgin Islands as well as of Toronto and Hong Kong.
Since Lee is a forensic accountant, she’s familiar with all sorts of ways of moving money around and hiding it. So another element in the novel is the world of international banking. Tracing the stolen money involves following leads from large banks, wire transfers, credit accounts, and small bank accounts that are used to move money from one place to another. Offshore money havens also play their roles in the novel.
The Water Rat of Wanchai shows just how global money fraud can be. It’s the story of how a large sum of money is stolen and traced, with geographical boundaries not mattering nearly as much as you might think. It features an intelligent and resourceful forensic accountant who’ s determined to find the money, and some very nasty people who are just as determined that she won’t. And it’s set in several of the world’s more exotic places. But what’s your view? Have you read The Water Rat of Wanchai? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 8 June/Tuesday 9 June – The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange – Anna Katherine Green
Monday 15 June/Tuesday 16 June – The Harbour Master – Daniel Pembrey
Monday 22 June/Tuesday 23 June – Simon Said – Sarah R. Shaber