House of Anansi, 2011 Spiderline Imprint

Or perhaps you’ve already been introduced?

I’m a little late to the Spiderline* party. Ava’s big-screen deal has already taken shape, but we’ve only just  met.

She has developed quite the reputation since The Water Rat of Wanchai was published last January.

When she meets Captain Robbins in Guyana, in this first Ava Lee novel, he observes, “You are a mercenary, Ms. Lee.”

When Ava replies, “I am an accountant”, Captain Robbins responds, “Exactly.”

There are some who would agree with each of these assessments.

Others would agree with Captain Robbin’s declaration that they are one-and-the-same.

It’s true that Ava Lee is something of a chameleon. She has more than one passport and a good supply of business cards and SIM cards; she does what it takes to get the job done.

And the job in this case? “You are a forensic accountant,” says her client.

He’s looking for someone to recapture the theft of $5 million. He needs Ava Lee’s skill set, and not just the mathematical elements.

Maybe he hasn’t articulated that. Maybe he really does think that Ava Lee simply uses a calculator and a telephone to recapture her clients’ losses.

And he has only spoken to her on the telephone; had he actually seen her (she’s 5’3, weighs 115 pounds, is slim not skinny, has large breasts for a Chinese woman, and she looks young for being in her ’30s), he might have been even less inclined to think of drugs, bribes and martial arts.

Ava’s physical description is fairly detailed. (Admittedly, excess flesh on male characters is also described, but whether or not readers believe that it’s necessary to mention the size of her breasts is up to the individual reader.)

One could argue that a lot of the details in the story are extraneous.

Ava Lee doesn’t just read the newspaper at the hotel in Bangkok; she reads all the newspapers in the lobby (the two English-language papers, The Nation and the Bangkok Post — a Chinese paper, the International Herald Tribune, and the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal).

She doesn’t simply change her clothes, she puts on her pink Brooks Brothers shirt with a pair of linen slacks.

And certainly many readers have commented on the detailed brand information included in this series.

Nonetheless, such detail does add to character development. And many readers will thrill to the details about the relative merits of dim sum delicacies and doughnuts, katoey culture and the going rates for digital rips in Thailand (all of which are relevant to the novel’s plot).

The branding is a constant reminder that Ava comes with a past, which includes a mother who “had made a semi-career out of shopping”.

Ava attended Havergal, she lives in  the ritzy neighbourhood of Yorkville in Toronto, she is incapable of discussing a hotel without mentioning its star-rating (and because the novel includes travel to Hong Kong, Thailand, Guyana and the British Virgin Islands, there is a lot of opportunity to talk star-ratings).

The branding is simply one aspect of the author’s attention to detail and, in most cases, it appears in a context which emphasizes character and style.

“Then she picked up her notebook and pen and took three sachets of [Starbucks] VIA instant from her bag. The clock said six forty. She needed her morning coffee. She needed to think. The morning had barely begun, and Ava didn’t need the day to get any more dramatic.”

This appears less than 30 pages from the end of the novel, and that “dramatic day” has been wholly entertaining for the reader. (The pacing in this novel is solidly satisfying.)

That final reminder about which coffee Ava Lee prefers is completely unnecessary for the attentive reader, but the remainder of the passage reinforces the regimented nature of Ava’s thought process, the vital importance that her daily routine plays in her life.

The novel’s prose is deliberate and no-nonsense. If Ava wasn’t Ava, it might seem clinical, even overly-analytical at times, but the style reflects Ava Lee perfectly: slightly formal, certainly, but not impersonal.

“Given the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, Ava had quietly cut her ties with the institution. But she couldn’t entirely revoke her childhood. She saw no relationship between prayer and the Church, or between St. Jude and the Church. She prayed to him often when she was working, not because she was involved in that many lost causes, but more because he was also the patron saint of desperate situations, and those were something with which she was more familiar.”

The desperate situations in The Water Rat of Wanchai are what keep the pages turning, but what will keep readers coming back to the series is Ava Lee.

And it’s worthy of note that the house has clearly thought about these works as a series (the first two being published by House of Anansi in 2011, the third a few weeks ago, and the next three completed and in the wings), a series which holds great promise for a success on screen as well.

But though readers must wait for the film(s), they can meet Ava Lee right now on the page. And those pages are bound by Daniel Cullen’s striking design.

The spines of the Ava Lee mysteries line up on a bookshelf as beautifully as a line of figures in Ava Lee’s balance sheet, the typeface clear and clear as a reader would imagine Ava’s handwriting on pristine parchment paper (the world’s highest quality brand of course).

How about you? Have you met Ava Lee?

*Spiderline is the crime fiction imprint from House of Anansi (They had a cool contest on right now, for travellers in Toronto and Vancouver, which ran until April 16, 2012, but I’ve edited this post to indicate that it’s closed now. Great idea though!)