Sunday, April 26, 2015

The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7) by Ian Hamilton

Hamilton continues to thrill us with his unique angle on business dealings in Asia, this time in China. While there is always something to learn in Hamilton’s take on international business, this time we are treated to very well-financed business women negotiating new ventures in and around Shanghai. Ava Lee finds herself involved with Uncle’s old contacts in the Triads and takes some time away from her own concerns to straighten out the tangle of Triad relations in the region leading up to the vote for a new Chairman of Triads across Asia.

Particularly realistic is the description of the Shanghai Triad’s business plan: making, distributing, and selling around China knock-offs of Western products. The PRC government like the Taiwanese government before them currently turn a blind eye to copyright infringements, looking after their own self-interest in keeping employment and disposable incomes high. Ava undergoes a complicated calculus deciding whether or not to cooperate with Xu, leader of Shanghai’s Triad, given the illegal nature of his business. After an early morning visitation from the ghost of Uncle, she decides to ride that beast. Very quickly she becomes embroiled in their internecine warfare.

What I loved about this particular addition to the series is how Hamilton manages to once again to keep the series fresh by remaking the wheel on which Ava Lee, financier and businesswoman, is forged. Her close colleague, Uncle, is dead and when Ava has finished grieving (one month in Toronto essentially alone and unbothered by anyone else’s demands), she gets on a flight to Shanghai eager to turn the page from the financial fraud investigations she’d done previously. She’s now keen to invest in businesses of her own choice and although she flies to Shanghai with clear boundaries and standards defined, she quickly jettisons those safeguards in favor of more risk once on the ground.

Hamilton always surprises me with the direction of his narrative and the development of character. He gives some thought to how this careful, clever woman might experience the ordinary humiliations of daily life in Hong Kong and places her, dripping with sweat after a run in Victoria Park, crushed among fellow passengers in a crowded rush-hour bus for three agonizing stops, during which time she suffers the imprecations and haughty looks of her fellow passengers. This completely believable and ordinary scenario brings the controlled Ava back to earth and sisterhood.

An interesting feather of a sideline with which Hamilton teases us is the introduction of Richard Bowlby of the law firm Burgess and Bowlby in Hong Kong. Bowlby, a gweilo knowledgeable about Asia, sounds self-deprecating and funny on the telephone when speaking with Ava, making her laugh! Hamilton has her canceling several appointments with him, seeming to provoke Bowlby's ire. This standard thread in romance novels feels like a come-on by Hamilton and he manages it skillfully. Perhaps we’ll see another side to Ava in the future.

As the day-to-day work involved in managing a large investment fund begins to dawn on Ava, she clearly is dreaming of ways “to get her life back.” Near the end of this novel we see her doodling her way to a new reporting structure, hoping to find ways to jettison some of the hands-on responsibility of management. Ah, yes, how to keep the income and lose the responsibility is something top managers have been struggling with since time immemorial. I look forward to seeing how she manages it.

Hamilton clearly seems to enjoy writing this series and I admit to continued admiration for what he has been able to do. I love reading these novels because of the realistic descriptions of business scenarios, locations, and for the element of surprise in character development. Hamilton doesn’t detail Ava’s backstory in this seventh in the series, but moves directly into her new life as a venture capitalist. While there is less discussion of what Ava eats for dinner, something I admit to a healthy interest in, we learn that she quite likes white burgundy and pinot grigio to unwind. Unwind? Perhaps even Ava finds her constant effort to stay poised a strain.

Now that I know this book series is being planned as a TV miniseries, I can’t help but imagine ways this dialogue-heavy addition to the series could play out on film. Can it be shot on location in Asia or will green screens have to do? It makes for fascinating mental exercise. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Now that Hamilton has created insatiable demand, he has to manage supply, something he and the Triads have in common. So far he's managed wonderfully.

The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)

The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)

The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)

You can buy these books here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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