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Book Reviews

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan

by Ian Hamilton

In The Water Rat of Wanchai, the first book in Ian Hamilton’s detective series, forensic accountant and martial arts expert Ava Lee tackled the unscrupulous practices of the international seafood industry. In the follow-up, The Disciple of Las Vegas, Ava tore into crooks operating an online gambling racket. With the third novel in the series, she finds herself in a decidedly more glamorous underworld: the art-forgery business.

Wong Changxing, a rags-to-riches entrepreneur from Wuhan, and his wife, May Ling, are amateur collectors of Fauvist art. Their collection, which includes paintings by Derain, Braque, Matisse, and Monet, is a rare gem in China – until many of their acquisitions are deemed fakes. Wong, one of the most powerful people in the country, is bent on violent retribution for the humiliation he’s endured as a result of the fraud, and so the couple turns to an old friend, Ava’s triad-affiliated boss, known simply as Uncle, to find the people behind the $80-million scam.

Put off by Wong’s hubris and outdated sense of justice, Ava initially declines, but capitulates after the calculating May Ling promises that the job will be a straight-up, bloodless debt collection. It takes nearly 100 pages for the story to get going, but once Ava finds a solid lead, she quickly begins tracking shady art dealers, gallery owners, and artists via international wire transfers, tax reports, invoices, and other financial documents. Fortunately for the lay reader, whose eyes are liable to glaze over at the mention of income statements and balance sheets, Hamilton uses Ava’s investigations as comprehensive and intriguing mechanisms for plot and character development.

It’s not all number crunching, database searches, and testy phone calls. Throughout her investigation, Ava, a Chinese-Canadian, encounters racism and sexism. Whether she’s facing down the world’s foremost art experts at a British auction house, fighting off inebriated Russian sailors, or bedding a shy Faeroese woman, Ava remains professional and no-nonsense – traits that come to the fore when her clients try to interfere with her delicate negotiations.

In the previous novels, Ava fought resiliently against people who’d rather kill her than give up their fortunes. This time around, the stakes never really seem all that high. Sure, the lives of a few contacts and a $20-million commission hang in the balance, but even these incentives fail to quicken the reader’s pulse. Here’s hoping the author’s next instalment, The Red Pole of Macau, due in July, finds Ava back to mucking about in a vicious and deadly underworld, risking life and limb to get the job done.