The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton

by John T. Cullen

Ava Lee is a young Chinese-Canadian accountant who collects massive debts for a living. Her partner and mentor is Uncle, an elderly Chinese who lives in Hong Kong and may or may not be attached to the Triads.

In The Water Rat of Wanchai (the first book in what will be a series),  Ava is persuaded by an old friend of Uncle’s to help a Hong Kong-based nephew, who is owed $5 million from a seafood company. The nephew financed a major U.S. retailer of cooked shrimp. The deal went sideways, the money disappeared, and Hong Kong wants justice—any way it can be fixed.

Ava’s journey takes her around the world–from Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Guyana, and the British Virgin Islands. Ava encounters the world’s underbelly, from Thai katoey culture to corrupt but helpful law enforcers. In Guyana she meets her match: Captain Robbins–a huge, godfather-like man who controls the police, politicians, and criminals alike. She needs his help, but he wants of piece of Ava’s $5 million action and will stop at nothing.

More About Ava Lee: At 5’3″ and 115 lbs., she proves that a bullet is small, but deadly. Her razor-sharp intelligence and unorthodox rules of engagement help her succeed where traditional methods have failed. Ava’s method is always two-fold. First, locate the money. Second, convince the thieves to return it. The thieves are rarely cooperative and Ava often has to resort to unorthodox tactics. Her motto is ‘People always do the right thing for the wrong reason’, and she has become expert at finding an individual’s tipping point.


JTC: Ian, you bring a remarkable background of skill and accomplishment to your new career as a novelist. You are already an accomplished author (The Children’s Crusade). What milestones brought you to The Water Rat of Wanchai? What exactly does the title mean?

Ian Hamilton: The thief is from Wanchai, a neighborhood in Hong Kong, and he was born in the Year Of The Water Rat. The Zodiac sign has a role in the book.

* * * *

JTC: What brought you to Ava Lee? From what fountains of inspiration (and homages) has she sprung?

Ian Hamilton: I have spent a life surrounded by amazingly bright, strong women, and when I was doing business in Asia for more than twenty years I met some in every company I dealt with. So when I started to write it felt perfectly natural to have a female protagonist who was smart, tough, and polite. Ava is always underestimated because Westerners mistake her courtesy as a weakness, rather than part of her culture and upbringing. As for homages, I loved Richard Stark’s work and in some ways Ava is a female–if more social–Parker. [JTC note: Richard Stark was a pseudonym of Donald Westlake (1933-2008) for his Parker detective novels.]

* * * *

JTC: In your diplomatic and business career, did you meet people like the characters in your book?

Ian Hamilton: Some of the characters are loosely based on people I actually did meet. In The Water Rat, for example, the engineer from Rolls Royce was inspired by an encounter with a man I met in a hotel in Guyana; and there are other less precise examples in the book. [JTC Disclaimer: All characters in Ian Hamilton’s fiction are wholly imaginary, though they may have roots in a melange of persons the author met in transient situations long ago, and they remain unidentifiable.]

* * * *

JTC: House of Anansi Press is a distinguished Canadian publisher. Since 1967, they have published Canadian authors like Margeret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and French-to-English translations of Quebecois authors. How does one land a juicy contract with them. Are the mechanics of it different in Canada (e.g., more government support for the arts or not?) than in the rest of the world—US, UK, Europe, etc.?

Ian Hamilton: I am in many ways a test for Anansi. They favor poetry, short stories, and experimental literature. I think I am their most commercial endeavor. There is no doubt that there are days they make me feel like they are slumming. But, that said, the support has been terrific, and my editor, Janie Yoon, has been tremendous. I don’t know how other writers feel about editors, but in my case I’m sure my books would not be as good without her.

* * * *

JTC: You are a Canadian author. Whatever labels you will wear, that is a prominent one. What does it mean to you, in any sense from national pride to opportunities?

Ian Hamilton: It means a lot, especially where Ava is concerned. She is almost the stereotypical Canadian–a bit of this and a bit of that, and all of it perfectly normal and acceptable. One of the things I most love about Canada is how quickly second generations move past the biases and prejudices of their immigrant parents–and in Canada not many of us are far removed from our immigrant roots–and embrace the Canadian mosaic. I suspect there is more inter marriage in Canada–on a percentage basis– than any country on earth. I want Ava to be rooted in her Chinese heritage and culture as she takes a Colombian girl friend and lives a life that is uniquely Canadian.

* * * *

JTC: Ian, you bring a remarkable background of skill and accomplishment to your new career as a novelist. You are already an accomplished author (The Children’s Crusade). What milestones brought you to The Water Rat of Wanchai? What exactly does the title mean?

Ian Hamilton: I was at a personal crossroads just less than two years ago. I had been diagnosed with an aortic aneurism and needed surgery. My business was sucking all my energy and enthusiasm from me. I came home from hospital after the surgery, sat at my computer and the name Ava Lee came to me. That’s what I started with – a name that seemed perfect to me and a first paragraph. I started to write. It was liberating. Just more than eight months later I had four completed manuscripts and I had created a life for Ava Lee.

* * * *

JTC: What makes you write fiction?

Ian Hamilton: I’ve always loved it and I’ve always written as a secret hobby. I have at least two manuscripts in my drawer that I finished and put away without showing to anyone because I didn’t like them when I was done.

* * * *

JTC: Who are your heroes and heroines among authors??

Ian Hamilton: Richard Stark. James Lee Burke. John Le Carré. Patrick O’Brian. Patricia Highsmith.

* * * *

JTC: What favorite books, movies, and other influences inform your work?

Ian Hamilton: Grapes of Wrath–book and movie. Godfather Two.

* * * *

JTC: What advice would you give the new author in shaping a successful career—even if they do not have your multi-faceted successes in several careers?

Ian Hamilton: Write. Write. At the end of the day, if you don’t put it on paper it doesn’t exist. As I said above, Ava Lee and the series came out of nowhere – I had the name and one paragraph. Now 2,000 plus pages and six books later I’m still going, but if I hadn’t kept writing for thirty years the randomness of it would never had happened.

* * * *

JTC: Does Ava Lee have a love interest? Is there now or will there be a significant other in her life and in her stories?

Ian Hamilton: In book two of the series, a love interest emerges. Her name is Maria Gonzalez and she is an Assistant Trade Commissioner at the Colombian Trade Commission in Toronto. She and Ava have an ongoing relationship through book six.

* * * *

JTC: Will Maria and Ava solve cases together, or will Maria just be a nice, safe haven when the action is over?

Ian Hamilton: Maria will never work with Ava.

* * * *

JTC: What question did I not ask, on topics you want to tell our readers about?

Ian Hamilton: You covered everything, I think, and thank you.

* * * *

JTC: Thank you, Ian Hamilton, and best wishes with your already very promising career as a novelist.

Ian Hamilton has been a journalist, senior Canadian civil servant, diplomat, and international businessman. The Water Rat of Wanchai is his first novel in the Ava Lee series. Three more are written and scheduled for publication in Canada, and in more than ten foreign markets. His non-fiction book, The Children’s Crusade, was a Canadian Book of the Month Club main selection.

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