Reading one of Ian Hamilton's Ava Lee series is a little like gorging on dim sum. Once begun, it is not easy to stop. But we can treat ourselves since his books come out only once a year. I so hate to be without one of the books in the series so that I save them until the next one is out so I always have one for a rainy day. However, I am going to break that rule and move directly on to The Two Sisters of Borneo after this because I like being part of the conversation that goes with publication of a new title. And, to tell you the truth, the warmth of Southeast Asia sounds p-r-e-t-t-y good to me right now, stuck deep in a northeast American winter. Imagine Toronto!
We are already far into the legend of Ava Lee with this fifth book in the series. Ava is a forensic accountant based in Toronto, working closely with a colleague she calls "Uncle" who lives in Hong Kong. Ava uncovers evidence of an investment scam originating in an Indonesian bank branch in Toronto, and reluctantly agrees to "follow the money" for some Vietnamese investors. She flies to Surabaya, the capital of East Java in Indonesia, to figure out what went wrong. This novel does what Hamilton is so good at doing: takes a completely plausible and complicated example of international fraud and describes how it works. We learn something. Each new adventure stands on its own and does not repeat what has come before. This time we don't even see the recovered funds changing hands at the end, which is usually one of the more satisfying moments for me. I admit to being a sucker for some kind of cosmic justice.
Why do I like the books so much? It begins with the writing. Hamilton does not "over tell" his story. He will describe a interesting development in a case of international money laundering, say, and in the next sentence or two, will describe the underpinnings of the scam or the step-by-step plan to thwart it...ahead of us, anticipating our questions. But he gives us that moment between one sentence and another to try and figure it out for ourselves what the problems or solutions are. He is generous with details of events that we would never have the opportunity to see for ourselves: in this installment, the raid on the plane bringing bricks of cash from Italy to Indonesia for laundering. It may not be what really happens in situations like this, but it is close enough for me. We get the smallest details, but we still can’t see into the minds and rationale of the Indonesian authorities, who will forever leave questions in our mind about who they were actually helping.
And then there is Ava. She is not just smart; she is thoughtful. She is disciplined...more disciplined than we are, which is why we admire her. But Ava does not come out of these jobs unscathed. Things don't always turn out as she planned and she gets damaged along the way. She has to deal with her increasing disaffection with the job. And she is unpredictable. Her cases are messy and she comes a little undone sometimes. I don't always have a feeling of calm that justice is perfectly done when she retaliates for some wrong. But she always interests me. I like learning how she approaches a case, and I see a change in her over the series. I am a little afraid to learn what will bring her down at last. She is signaling in this book the possibility that she will stop one day, and indeed her main partner in Hong Kong is soon to step aside.
Things change. That’s one of the things I love about this series. And the descriptions of Asia bring it all home, to anyone who has been or lived there. And to critics who say “it ain’t so,” I say it feels as close to true as others I have enjoyed. Descriptions of attitudes, mores, and locales are spot-on insightful.
This could be a standalone mystery, but since character introductions have become sketchier as the series progressed, I would recommend starting earlier in the series. Besides, Ava is changing, and one would want to see that progression. To my mind she is tired, jaded, and harder now, and perhaps it is a little more difficult to identify with her.
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