House of Anansi, 2011 Spiderline Imprint

Most readers picking up The Disciple of Las Vegas will have previously met Ava Lee in the first volume of the series, The Water Rat of Wanchai.

Nonetheless, one could begin reading the series with this volume. Indeed, in some ways it provides a clearer understanding of some aspects of Ava’s life than the first volume.

In The Water Rat of Wanchai, Ava takes a case in the novel’s opening pages after only briefly considering the possibilities with her business partner, a man she calls ‘Uncle’.

In The Disciple of Las Vegas, Uncle’s history is shared in more detail and readers are actually introduced to him in Hong Kong.

Uncle is a man of considerable influence. The new client on the scene — who needs someone to collect a bad debt for him, with great discretion — has an advisor with a significant connection to Uncle.

“He is from Wuhan like me, and over the years we have shown each other many favours. I would still have ten men rotting in Filipino prisons if it were not for him, and he would still be waiting for permits to build cigarette factories in Hubei province if it were not for me.”

It is this advisor who has steered this extremely wealthy client in Ava Lee’s direction. Uncle was already urging Ava to wrap up her case in The Water Rat of Wanchai so that she could shift her attention to this new client.

The Disciple of Las Vegas picks up that story right where readers were left off, literally the next morning after Ava has returned home having solved the lingering case. The second chapter opens with Ava having travelled to Hong Kong to meet with Uncle to begin this new case in earnest.

(As with the first novel, there are many scene changes: from Toronto to Hong Kong, San Francisco, Las Vegas, London, Vancouver and Costa Rica. Armchair-travellers will delight in the variety, although frequently Ava only has time to observe the hotels and airports in these destinations.)

The pacing in Ian Hamilton’s novels is tight and consistent. Some readers might feel this comes at a cost, as the prose is pragmatic and unadorned.

“He was more than seventy, she knew, but his skin was still smooth, with only the faintest traces of lines around his eyes and on his forehead. His close-cropped black hair was streaked with just a touch of grey. Uncle was dressed as usual in a simple black suit and a crisp white shirt buttoned to the collar. His monochromatic style was part convenience, part camouflage. It made him easy to overlook — just an elegantly dressed old man, except to those who knew.”

The descriptions are matter-of-fact. But they are revealing in their own way.

A paragraph describing Ava’s appearance and wardrobe, for instance, would certainly include the branding information for each article of clothing and notable accessories.

“The last thing she did was slip her Cartier Tank Française watch on her wrist. It had cost a small fortune, but she had never regretted purchasing it. She loved its look and thought it established the perfect balance between serious and successful.”

Ava’s brand preferences consistently reflect conservative tastes which seem to strive for this balance between serious and successful, from Brooks Brothers to Giordano. Cynical readers will be looking ahead to the product placement opportunities when Ava Lee takes to the screen.

This complaint (a small one, but a common one, with this series) could be readily addressed by altering later references to these products to read ‘her preferred coffee’ or ‘her favourite running pants’; as often as Ava travels, she always takes a supply of her preferred goods with her, so re-naming later references would work as a nod to regular readers, who quickly come to know Ava’s taste.

Though, it’s true that, as predictable as her brand preferences are, Ava is unpredictable in other ways.

For instance, she practices bak mei, which is a form of self-defense which capitalizes upon her small, slight frame and her ability to move quickly. Readers were introduced to her skills in The Water Rat of Wanchai, but she faces a new and formidable threat in this second volume in the series.

“It’s my job. I take no pleasure in some of the things I have to do.”

And it’s worth noting that Ava’s tales of bruising and healing take up more of the text than the action scenes; I appreciate that, because it adds a degree of realism and suits Ava’s methodical way of observing the world.

Even more impressive, than her physical prowess, is Ava’s ability to reason her way out of problems.

Ava studied at university to be an accountant and she is, above all, a business woman. She views her interactions and contracts with solid entries of debits and credits, always operating strictly according to a moral code that affords enough room for justice to satisfy the reader.

“…luck wasn’t a word she normally associated with her job, but this time it seemed to fit.”

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, even the best laid plans, even Ava Lee’s plans. And that’s what makes the stories interesting for their readers.