In The Spotlight: Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai

>In The Spotlight: Walter Mosley's A Red DeathHello, All,

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


Filed under Ian Hamilton, The Water Rat of Wanchai

27 responses to “In The Spotlight: Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai

  1. I love culturally diverse this sounds Margot – I always find that very attractive. Thanks.

    • This one really does give the reader a look at a lot of different ways of living and looking at life, Sergio. And a thriller-like pace and lots of money at stake to boot. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. As I lived in the Hong District of Admiralty (next door to Wan Chai) for 2 1/2 years I picked up this book sometime ago – damned if it isn’t still on my to be read list. Will simply have to get to it. Still miss the egg tarts from there….
    Thanks for the reminder Margot.

  3. I really enjoy novels that show the reader a different way of life or tradition and this one sounds fascinating. Thanks Margot.

    • It is fascinating on that score, Rebecca. Yet at the same time, Hamilton doesn’t (for my money, anyway) get bogged down in detail about this or that place, custom, etc.. I know that most of us have a lot more ‘wish list’ books than time to read them, but if you get the chance to read this, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. I like that the author lets you roam around exotic places, living vicariously through the characters. That alone might interest me. The plot sounds good too, though.

  5. Sounds like an interesting way to look at other cultures, but I’m delighted to say I don’t think this one is really for me. Phew! What a relief! 😉

    • I’ll get you next time, FictionFan 😉 Bwahahahaha! In all seriousness, no book is for everyone. And with limited reading time, we have to make choices. Might as well focus on books that are up your street.

  6. Col

    Thanks for the spotlight post Margot, I have one of the series books on the TBR pile, not too sure which one, but it seems an interesting read.

  7. Margot: I have enjoyed the series, especially the first couple of books. I have not been as comfortable with how the plots have developed in the last two books I have read.

    I think the combination of financial knowledge and Chinese family networks was most fascinating. I hope future books focus on them rather than rather conventional violent plots.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Bill. The financial knowledge, and the backdrop of Chinese family networks, are the most interesting aspects of the series. I’ll admit I’ve not read the most recent entry, but I agree that the appeal of the series isn’t in the violence. I hope Hamilton re-focuses on the things that set this series apart originally.

  8. I recently started a book set partly in Wanchai as well, but as it was all about witchcraft as well as international conspiracies, it wasn’t the book for me, so I never finished it. This sounds more interesting, although still quite a thrillerish type read.

    • It’s definitely got a thrillerish feel to it, Marina Sofia. I would say that it’s not ‘cartoonish,’ the way some thrillers are. And it does offer some interesting looks at some exotic places. I’m sorry to hear that your Wanchai book (I remember we were talking about that timing) didn’t work for you. If you try this one, I hope it works better.

  9. You do find such fascinating sounding books Margot – I like the idea of the multiple settings, what a great way to visit lots of countries in one go, but I’m not entirely sure that the subject matter is right for me this time.

    • Cleo – I thought Hamilton did a really effective job of showing the reader different places in this novel. And there really is a solid sense of the Chinese family structure and culture. But the fact is, no book is for everyone. And I know everyone’s TBR lists are ever-expanding…

  10. Follows on nicely from your money post! this does sound good, I am definitely interested, I like the idea of the exotic (to me) background.

    • Thanks, Moira. The locations really are nicely done, I think. And the money aspect of it is explained, but not (at least to me) overdone. Recommended for when you’re in a thriller-y mood.

  11. I have the 2nd book in this series, Margot, but you know how I like to start from the beginning. So I need to get this one so I can get started on the series. Mostly interested initially because of the Canadian connection, but it sounds like a good series.

    • The first few novels really are fine stories, Tracy. And in this case, although it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary, I think you do get a better perspective on the series if you read it in order.

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