The King of Shanghai by Ian Hamilton
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Ian Hamilton's eighth Ava Lee novel does not disappoint. For readers with an increasing curiousity about the growing power of China, the unorthodox Ava Lee mystery crime series is both enlightening and delightful to read.
For those who have not read Hamilton's earlier works, Ava Lee is a Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant who recovers debts for her clients from seriously badass criminals. Stunningly beautiful, she is also a lesbian who can best any man in martial arts. The major figure in her life is Chow Tung who was her business associate in the first novels of the series. An epitomy of virtue, he also draws on his dark past, and present, in China's Triad world to protect Ava Lee when things go awry. Chow Tung, whom Ava Lee refers to only as ''Uncle,'' has now passed away. She is just beginning to overcome his loss when one of his younger business associates, Xu, seeks her out with a proposition to finance her new venture capital business, Three Sisters. Much of the novel revolves around Ava Lee's attraction to Xu, who incarnates many of the virtues of her former mentor.
By way of a literary prelude, Hamilton introduces the reader to the galloping Chinese fashion world. Galloping yes, both in churning out phenomenal quantities of knock-offs to satisfy the world's insatiable appetite for affordable designer clothes, but also in the spiralling creativity of Chinese designers coming into their own. Ava Lee and her partners, May Ling and Amanda, are in Shanghai to strike a deal with the brilliant new designer Clark Po and his sister, Gillian, who want to start their own line of very high-end designer clothing. Not necessarily a topic to intrigue male readers? To the contrary, Hamilton's rich descriptions of today's Shanghai embroider the story with a page-turning flair and his detailed description of how Chinese business has so rapidly made the country the workshop of the world is textbook material for would-be entrepreneurs.
Hamilton soon relegates the fashion deal to a backstory as he refocuses the narrative on the relationship between Xu and Ava Lee. Xu, who has become the Dragonhead of the Shanghai Triad, is intent on fulfilling Uncle's dream of transitioning all of the Triad activities away from drugs, extortion and prostitution and towards manufacturing. He needs to draw on Ava Lee's acumen and use her venture capital company to advance that goal, but she is reluctant to enter into his world. Already Xu's own Triad has largely left criminality behind, and now dominates China's production of i-pad knock-offs and other high-end electronics. Xu's Shanghai operation has also monopolized the supply of these products to Asia's other Triads. He now wants to leverage this position to become the Chairman of all the Triads in order to complete their transformation to legitimacy, but is opposed by other Triad leaders who still cling to the old ways. Despite her misgivings, Ava Lee soon finds herself the messenger between the other Dragonheads and Xu.
Although the plot of The King of Shanghai is well structured, this is not the novel's strong point. Hamilton's ability to clothe his characters in a hybrid of exoticism and the modernity of the new China is what really moves the story along. Against this, the unique personality of Ava Lee comes to light: half idealist, half dragon lady. Whether she is navigating through a tricky business deal or kick-boxing 300-pound gangsters into submission, Ava Lee is a woman who gets things done.
The stated sexual orientation of Ava Lee does not play a big role in The King of Shanghai, as it may have in earlier novels. Yes, there are the phone calls to Toronto to her girlfriend Maria Gonzalez, and passing references to Ava Lee's quandary about whether to live or not with Maria. The novel is at best LGBTi-friendly, but nothing more. At the same time, there is a subtle sexual tension between Xu and Ava Lee throughout the novel. Hard-core Ava Lee fans, who are plenty, might take issue with this interpretation. Perhaps, the energy between the two is just a blur of the respect and loyalty by Ava Lee to the men in her life? In any case, the deft introduction of this ambivalence reflects the superb skill of Hamilton at keeping his readers hooked for more.
In the world of crime fiction, Ian Hamilton is not only a prolific author, but a true Canadian success story. What is more remarkable is that all his novels are published by the House of Anansi Press, Canada's iconic publisher of literary fiction and poetry. Indeed, Hamilton has become somewhat of a pioneer in bridging the gap between genre fiction and traditional CanLit. And kudos for that!