Saturday, February 11, 2017

Couturier of Milan by Ian Hamilton (Ava Lee #9)

400 pages Published January 16th 2017 by House of Anansi Press

More than once I have called this series of books about a Chinese-born Canadian my guilty pleasure, but now I wonder why I should feel guilty. Ava Lee is a forensic accountant with deep ties to Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. For several books in the series she investigated improprieties in international trade and business deals, but then she invested her earnings in new businesses on the mainland as a venture capitalist. Anyone with even a cursory interest in how the world turns is gong to be fascinated by the mysteries revealed in this series.

Ava Lee is smart, savvy, sexy, and…a lesbian…which is no big deal when she is residing in Toronto. In China, however, that lifestyle choice is not appreciated, nor even permitted. At the end of this installment of the series, the author puts a little pressure on those restrictions and I expect we will just see how far they bend.

One of Ava’s investments is in a clothing designer trying to break into the European market. The designer attracts the attention of a major Italian luxury goods provider who doesn’t take kindly to the smallish company rejecting his takeover bid. Ava calls on her friends in the Triads to push back, and the Mafia becomes involved.

What’s so fascinating in this installment is the discussion about sourcing and supply for luxury goods. We must all have had our suspicions about how luxury goods makers were able to survive in the era of Chinese low-cost production and competition, and here we get a few details that might help us to figure out for ourselves how much of those expensive products are actually “Made in Italy,” or perhaps just assembled in Italy.

There is no doubt that shipping plays an enormous part in costs, both time and money, for the materials are often shipped in and [mostly] finished goods shipped out—across the world. Besides the enormous marketing efforts, quality of the scarce materials, plus the real design genius behind some of the products…all of these things add to cost, but a little deep dive into the metrics and the kinds of markups on these products sort of takes away our enthusiasm for these ‘luxury' products: luxury for whom?

Hamilton imagines for us a meeting between the Mafia and the Triads in Macau, that city of casinos, where residents, curiously, live in one the most densely populated areas on earth and yet have the world’s longest life expectancy. He discusses along the way the changes in Macau’s landscape when foreign concessionaires were finally allowed to build, making a kind of Vegas on steroids. Millions of gamblers leave $45 billion there a year, compared to a take of $6 billion a year in Las Vegas.

There is no bloodshed in this novel, but I have to admit I was expecting it every second once everyone arrived at the Italian restaurant on Macau to talk an unreasonable and profane billionaire magnate into moderating his expectations. That man did not fit the mold I was expecting for someone “with everything.” He seemed too disbelieving that anyone would refuse his incentives, and too rude when he finally got the message. There was something authentic missing in his characterization.

After all this time, after 9 episodes of Ava’s experiences, I am still trying to come to grips with author Ian Hamilton, and why he does not seem prurient when describing the sex life of a woman. First, Ava is pretty restrained, and in all that time has had only one fling…a one-night stand with a hotel manageress in Iceland. Second, Ava has had a steady girlfriend in Toronto whom she barely ever saw, from readers’ point of view. And thirdly, it occurs to me that maybe the male Hamilton has an easier time writing about a gorgeous sexy woman than he does a man. That’s a bit of a challenge for him.

All in all, I always enjoy reading about Ava’s next challenge, where she’s been, and what she ate. There have to be some advantages to making millions of dollars after all, and it is a lot easier (and I argue even more fun) to read about it than it is to actually go out and do it. It looks like she’s off to the Philippines in the next installment and I have to admit a little danger does my heart good. This novel was a little more talky than usual, but a lot happened in a couple days. It takes time to explain.

Recent reporting in the New York Times discusses the case of a Chinese-born Canadian billionaire banker who has been thought to have been abducted from Hong Kong, North Korean-style, and kept under some kind of arrest in mainland China. Apparently some Chinese officials are purchasing large shares in national power companies for their own enrichment, like what happened in Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved, and they don’t want their machinations known. I wouldn't mind seeing Hamilton wading into this criminal circus and political controversy, just for fun. Many thanks to author Hamilton, editor Yoon, and publisher Anasi for the high-class entertainment.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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