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Book Reviews

The Water Rat of Wanchai

by Ian Hamilton

Erasing Memory

by Scott Thornley

Why do crime-fiction readers love series so much? The best explanation I can come up with involves merging two oft-repeated axioms: “get in late, leave early” and “leave ’em wanting more.” The best series fiction leaves readers immersed in a world that is both familiar (recurring characters, settings, and motifs) and fresh (standalone plots). Seeds planted early bear fruit later on, creating a rich forest that blooms across a number of books.

Canadian crime fiction is rife with excellent series, penned by writers like Louise Penny, Giles Blunt, Howard Engel, and Alan Bradley. This year, two new writers arrive on the scene with debut novels in projected series, staking their territory in very different, but equally enjoyable, ways.

Ava Lee, the thirtysomething forensic accountant who serves as the protagonist of The Water Rat of Wanchai (the first book in House of Anansi’s new genre imprint, Spiderline), is quite the globetrotter. In just over 400 pages, she leaves behind her high-maintenance, shopaholic mother in Toronto and travels to Hong Kong, Bangkok, the British Virgin Islands, and Guyana in pursuit of more than $5 million pilfered from a seafood company. Throughout her travels, the no-nonsense, composed Ava acts as a foil for older men, from her mentor, “Uncle,” who may be connected to the Chinese Triads, to Captain Robbins, the Canadian-born Guyanese police chief who never met a deal he couldn’t sweeten for himself. Ava exhibits calm under pressure, no matter how violent the situation becomes. She wears her feminism easily, without having to broadcast it.

Ian Hamilton, a former diplomat and PR professional, knows his chosen locales well, and in particular evokes post-Jonestown Guyana in all of its scary decrepitude. Although he spends too much time detailing Ava’s eating habits in the early going, he creates a terrific atmosphere of suspense once he gets warmed up.

The Water Rat of Wanchai is stripped to the bones; the writing in Erasing Memory, by contrast, contains any number of poetic flourishes. The protagonist, a police detective named MacNeice, often dreams of his dead wife, Kate, and possesses unnaturally acute powers of observation, which he demonstrates with Holmesian fervour. In this first outing, MacNeice is primarily preoccupied with the “inglorious end of a clearly glorious young woman” – specifically, a beautiful violinist.

The action stays firmly rooted in the city of Dundurn, a fictionalized version of Hamilton, Ontario, and in the ruminations of the book’s protagonist. But at times the outside world intrudes on the action. Violence lurks like an unwelcome neighbour, and romance, both thwarted and promised, is never far behind.

What’s most impressive about Erasing Memory is the precision Scott Thornley, the head of a Toronto design firm, brings to the telling. The plotting is meticulous, with every detail given appropriate weight. MacNeice’s investigative acumen is sharp and considered. Secondary characters – from the hot-headed Vertesi to the keenly intelligent Aziz – are intriguing enough for us to want to learn more about them in future instalments. MacNeice’s fondness for grappa is a bit too similar to Inspector Banks’s love of Laphraoig in Peter Robinson’s novels, but if the reference is intentional, Thornley has at least chosen a strong model as he embarks on his own series of police procedurals.