Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Princeling of Nanjing (Ava Lee #8) by Ian Hamilton

Hamilton never ceases to amaze me. He writes a fiction series about an unlikely heroine, Ava Lee, who does forensic accounting for a living. Throw away all those notions you had about accountants being boring. There is nothing even remotely ordinary about what Ms. Lee does, and the fact that her work has her traveling the world regularly adds to the mystique.

While most series have a level of predictability after awhile, this series never does. We are treated in this episode to the most lovely charting of how corruption might work in China. You heard some time ago about Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, famous now for the murder of a British businessman. Bo was a “princeling” of Chinese politics, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China. He was also governor of Liaoning province and held an important role in the Northeast Area Revitalization Plan, giving him power over what is accomplished and who gets to do it. A result of all that power was a myriad family-owned businesses, dubious connections, graft, and coercion that allowed his family to acquire untold wealth.

Cut to Ava Lee, in Shanghai for a fashion show highlighting her fledgling company’s first collection. One of her backers is the head of the Triads, who comes under pressure from the “princeling” of Jiangsu province 
(the wealthiest in all China) to start up a synthetic drug operation. Well, Ava decides the best way to get this powerful, unreasonable man to back off is to expose his families dealings. And then Hamilton kindly gives us an education to exactly how graft and corruption can occur in China.

You may not be as impressed as I was, but let me tell you I have tried to figure out how this works for years…it always seemed just too blatant to be possible. But the hidden networks of power make it extraordinarily difficult to reveal the true source of the corruption. You will note that only last month the Panama Papers revealed that Chinese President Xi Jinping had extensive hidden overseas caches of money in the names of companies headed by close family members. Well, Hamilton shows how this might be possible.

In this episode there is relatively little exhibition of Ava Lee’s background in bak mei kungfu , a particularly lethal type of Chinese martial arts often used by palace bodyguards in centuries gone by, but there is a little, where Ava takes on two thugs sent to kidnap her into silence. What gives the story impetus is the short time frame in which Ava uncovers the links that made a provincial Chinese governor a billionaire, and the danger that lurks behind every phone call and meeting. In the United States I doubt we’d be using cell phones like Ava did in Shanghai and Nanjing, without regard to who might be listening, but there have to be some ways to bypass plot killers.

Ava is an avowed lesbian with a girlfriend in Toronto waiting for her return, but we sense Ava’s growing attachment to a powerful man in Shanghai and expect that one day that attraction might burst into flame. The unexplored sexual tension adds piquancy to their conversations around the breakfast table slurping congee with scallions. And that’s the other thing about this series that is so delightful: if you’ve ever wondered what to order at a Chinese restaurant, look no further. Hamilton details for us the most exquisite meals, whether at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong or a hotpot restaurant in a side street there and gives us the manners and customs to go along with it. I defy anyone to turn up their noses at the menus items described.

Hamilton was an international businessman and diplomat before he turned to writing. How he came up with a Asian lesbian as a leading lady in his novels is one of the great mysteries of inspiration. His tightly wound and disciplined main character is perhaps a bit too cool to imagine as a friend, but she is someone to admire, certainly, from afar. Hamilton never disappoints in this series, so if you haven’t indulged yet, make sure to get a couple books in the series to get acclimatized. This very fine fiction is as intellectually stimulating as it is culturally rewarding.


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