House of Anansi, 2012 Spiderline Imprint

Ian Hamilton has envisioned his Ava Lee series as a multi-volume work. When he finishes writing one volume, he begins writing the next on the following day.

Ironically, the action in the second volume (The Disciple of Las Vegas) actually also picks up on the following day, immediately following the action of the first volume The Water Rat of Wanchai.

Here, Ian Hamilton begins writing the following day, but Ava has taken a two-month break from chasing bad debts.

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan opens when she is on a cruise with her family, having left her girlfriend, Maria, back in Toronto.

Tensions on the family front are as remarkable as the tensions were in Ava’s last case; just as the reader is wondering if things will escalate to outright blows on the deck or in the next port-of-call, Uncle calls with another forensic accounting job for Ava.

Although the dynamics of the family situation are interesting (Ava’s mother, Jennie, is her father’s second wife, and he later took a third wife), how much readers respond to this aspect of the novel will depend on their investment in Ava as a character.

Of course, not all mystery readers are looking for substantial character development; although Ava Lee is a tantalizing invention in The Water Rat of Wanchai, there isn’t a lot of development in the series’ next two volumes.

Readers actually meet characters they’ve only heard of, or have only heard on the telephone (e.g. Uncle, Ava’s business partner, in the second book, and Marcus, Ava’s father, in the third book), but there is little dimension added as the pages turn.

Surprisingly, the same is true of Ava’s character. There are glimpses of her sense of being abandoned by her father, and of her difficulty forming and sustaining lasting emotional relationships, but readers’ relationships with Ava are necessarily distanced.

Just as the image of a woman’s silhouette on the cover of each book is the same, Ava’s profile (typically clad in either a Brooks Brothers shirt and tailored black pants or a Giordano black T-shirt and Adidas running pants) is largely static throughout the books. It’s appropriate, in that sense, that what readers do know about Ava is largely reduced to external preferences and details.

Although in the third book she is more often craving a coffee than drinking one, she consistently drinks her trademark Starbucks VIA when she does have a cup, and while she does not as predictably recite the star-ratings for the hotels that she stays in, the overt branding persists in the third volume of the series.

In fact, the references to her Double Happiness computer bag and Moleskin notebooks quite likely outnumber the references to her girlfriend, Maria, who only makes two very brief appearances in the book.

It’s understandable that there isn’t much discussion of the emotional aspects of Ava’s relationship with Maria, given Ava’s propensity for distanced relationships, but what is questionable  is the absence of discussion of their physical relationship.

Here’s Ava, as described in the opening pages of this novel: “At five foot three and a hundred and fifteen pounds, she was lean and toned, but her breasts were large for a Chinese woman — she was among the small percentage who didn’t need to wear a padded bra. Her legs and bum were muscular from years of running and practising bak mai.”

Readers don’t get that kind of physical detail about Maria. The first time Ava and Maria met was at the end of The Disciple of Las Vegas when she picks Ava up at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The scene is very briefly described at the beginning of this volume; all readers know is that the “physical attraction had been instantaneous”.

If it’s important enough to have the details about Ava’s breasts, legs and bum shared, then surely it’s all-the-more-important to have the same details about her lover relayed, particularly if their physical attraction is significant. If it’s important to include details about the physicality of the fight scenes (more prominent in the first and second volumes), why cut or gloss over the sex scenes?

Perhaps there is something almost-sacred about the scenes with Maria, but that doesn’t explain the treatment of the casual hook-ups when Ava is travelling. And it seems inconsistent, not only with Ava’s youth, but with her having observed that many other people — but not her — are hesitant to discuss sex matter-of-factly.

(I’m not well enough acquainted with Chinese culture to comment on the ways in which Ava’s upbringing, which is traditional in many ways, might influence her attitudes and behaviour in this regard.)

These really are just details. Whether The Wild Beasts of Wuhan is a satisfying mystery isn’t necessarily directly related to whether the heroine’s love-life/sex-life is credible.

But they are the kind of details that make me flip to the back of the book to suss out the author’s photo. And I’m not surprised that it feels like some of these details don’t add up, when I see that the author is a heterosexual man, who is perhaps twice Ava’s age (given the number of grandchildren).

These details likely matter more to readers who prefer the emphasis on characterization that is demonstrated in series like Louise Penny’s and in works by writers like Peter Temple. Readers who are looking for more intricate development may find the threads of Ava Lee too thin to warrant a return to the series beyond the first volume. Readers who are looking for multi-dimensional lesbian relationships in a mystery/thriller may prefer the works of Sandra Scoppettone or Laurie R. King.

But readers who seek a persistently-paced plot, who simply enjoy returning to a series for what Victor Watson describes as a “paradoxical search for familiarity combined with strangeness”, will be happy to return to the land of Ava Lee.

Readers who enjoy travelling to a variety of destinations (Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the Faeroe Islands, Dublin, London, and New York in this volume), who want to run through the city parks with Ava, will be pleased with Ian Hamilton’s works also.

Readers who enjoy shopping vicariously as much as they enjoy armchair travelling in their mystery reading: these readers likely will be satisfied too.

This volume has Ava seeking to recover funds invested in a series of paintings which have been proven to be forgeries long after the initial sales, and the glimpse into the art world is interesting indeed.

Ultimately, the readers who enjoyed the company of Ava Lee in the series’ second volume, The Disciple of Las Vegas, as much as in the first, The Water Rat of Wanchai, will likely enjoy The Wild Beasts of Wuhan as much, if not more.

The first volume remains my favourite, but my interest was revived in the later pages of this third volume, given the way in which this case was — and was not — resolved.

Currently six volumes are written and the fourth is scheduled for publication this autumn. Are you reading this series as fiercely as Ian Hamilton is writing them?