“Formidable...Ava Lee is unbeatable at just about everything....She’s perfect.”—Toronto Star
Meet Ava Lee, alluring but deadly, with a mind like a steel trap, as she chases millions of dollars and dangerous criminals around the globe in this exotic and fast-paced new crime series by Ian Hamilton.
In The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, Wong Changxing, a rich Chinese powerbroker, has just been bilked out of $100 million in an elaborate art forgery con. His one hope of recovering the money, and of saving face, is Ava Lee—a forensic accountant with a talent for tracking down untraceable funds. With the help of her mentor, the Triad-connected Uncle, Ava traces the provenance of the meticulously forged paintings to Denmark, the Faroe Islands, New York, and London. As she infiltrates one of the most prestigious auction houses in the world, she uncovers a massive web of corruption, where high art and high-stakes fraud threaten more than just her client’s business—this is one scam that could get her killed. Ava Lee is one of the most scintillating, unique heroines to come along in years.
About the Author
IAN HAMILTON has had a range of careers over the span of his life, from journalist to diplomat, but it wasn’t until a health scare that he sat down to write his first novel. His journalism has been featured in Maclean’s and Saturday Night.
Read an Excerpt
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan
An Ava Lee Novel
By Ian Hamilton
PicadorCopyright © 2012 Ian Hamilton
All rights reserved.
Ava Lee sat on a bench on the Otrobanda side of Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, watching ships from China, Indonesia, Panama, and the Netherlands come and go. The crews stood by the railings, waving down at the onlookers as their vessels moved almost rhythmically in and out of St. Anna Bay. Ava waved back.
It was mid-afternoon. She had arrived that morning on a cruise ship that was moored about a kilometre away, at a fort that had once guarded the entrance to the harbour. The fort had been converted into a tourist spot with restaurants, shops, a hotel, and a casino.
She was on vacation with her family: her father, her mother, and her older sister, Marian, who had also brought her husband, Bruce, and their two daughters. They were eight days into the trip, with six to go. Ava wondered if they would survive the long journey back to Miami.
The Lees were not a traditional family by Western standards. Ava's mother, Jennie, was the second wife of Marcus. Following tradition, he had married her without divorcing his first wife. They had lived in Hong Kong until Ava was two and Marian four, when Marcus had taken on a third wife. The new family dynamic had caused friction between Marcus and Jennie, so she and her daughters had been relocated to Canada. It was an arrangement that suited them both. He looked after all his families financially, spoke to Jennie every day by phone, and visited her for two weeks every year. Although Ava and Marian had grown up without the physical presence of their father, they knew that Marcus loved them. So, traditional or not, their time together was enjoyed, if only because everyone knew the rules and had the appropriate expectations.
This cruise, though, was a first. Marcus's visits usually consisted of a stay at Jennie's house north of Toronto, lunches and dinners with her and Ava, and a two-day trip to Ottawa to see Marian and the girls. The extended holiday had been Marcus's idea; the cruise, Marian's. In hindsight, Ava thought they should have known better. It hadn't taken long for discord to surface.
The main combatants were Jennie and Bruce. Bruce was a gweilo, a Westerner, and a senior civil servant with the Canadian government. But the fact that he wasn't Chinese wasn't the issue; it was the kind of gweilo he was — uptight and anal. The kind of person who got up early to secure deck chairs for the day. The kind who pre-organized a full day of activities at every port of call. The kind who made sure to use every facility and perk offered by the cruise. The kind who had to be in line at five forty-five for a six-o'clock dinner.
Marian and the girls were used to Bruce's ways and didn't think twice about it. Marcus and Ava had rolled with the punches for the first few days before politely begging off some of the group activities. But from the moment she stepped on the ship, Jennie Lee had refused to fall in line. She declined to go on any of Bruce's planned excursions, and she arrived later and later for every lunch and dinner. She never came to breakfast, being too tired from late nights at the gaming tables.
By day three, Bruce and Jennie had stopped talking. He had taken to glaring at her and she pretended he didn't exist. It was hard on Marian, and Ava felt sorry for her. Marian had always had a more difficult relationship with their mother than Ava did.
"Why did she come?" Marian demanded.
"What choice did she have? Daddy wanted to take us on a family holiday and you talked him into booking the cruise without discussing it with her first. Did you expect her to stay in Toronto for the two weeks of the year she has with her husband?"
"I thought it would be different."
"It's never different with her, or with Bruce," Ava said. "So don't make it one-sided. Neither of them is easy."
When they berthed at Willemstad, Bruce had organized a tour of Curaçao; a driver was waiting for them at the dock. Jennie didn't show. Marcus went on the tour, grudgingly. Ava had said she wanted to spend a quiet day in town.
She shifted on the bench and gazed at the Queen Emma Bridge, which connected the Otrobanda and Punda quarters of the city. Willemstad was a busy commercial port — Curaçao was a major oil refiner and exporter — and the bridge was in constant motion, opening and closing for vessels coming in and out of the harbour. She looked across the bay, admiring the rows of two- and three-storey stucco buildings painted in pastel blues, greens, and yellows, all of them topped with red tile roofs. The tiles had originally served as ballast on the ships that had brought Dutch settlers to the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. Ava felt as if she were in Amsterdam, in one of the old neighbourhoods built on the canals.
The cruise had come after a two-month break from chasing bad debts halfway around the world. Chasing bad debts was what Ava, a forensic accountant, did for a living, and after back-to-back jobs that had taxed her both physically and emotionally, she had needed some time off. She had spent time with friends, danced at salsa clubs, eaten more than she should, burned off the extra calories by running, eaten some more, and gone to her regular bak mei workouts. She had also been exploring a growing relationship with a Colombian woman named Maria Gonzalez.
Maria was an assistant trade commissioner at the Colombian consulate in Toronto, a newcomer to the city. Ava's best friend, Mimi, had met her at a function and done some matchmaking via email. The two women had connected while Ava was travelling, and when she flew home, Maria was waiting for her at the airport. The physical attraction had been instantaneous. Emotionally, Ava was still feeling tentative. She and Maria had vacationed in Thailand for two glorious weeks, and they had managed to end every day wanting to see each other the next. When they got back to Toronto, Maria had begun to hint that they move in together. Ava was relieved that the cruise would give her some breathing space.
The sun was higher in the sky now and the pastel buildings glistened in its light. She got up and walked towards Kura Hulanda, a hotel, conference centre, and museum complex that Dutch businessman and philanthropist Jacob Gelt Dekker had created out of what were originally the city's slums. The original street layout, including the cobblestones, had been kept intact. The old housing had been demolished, and colourful new stucco and wooden houses had been built that now functioned as stand-alone hotel units.
Ava headed for the Kura Hulanda Museum, which was famous for a collection that described the history of the slave trade. The museum was made up of several low-lying buildings linked in an L shape; its dark painted walls and small windows made the edifice look gloomy.
She walked through the galleries, admiring the sculptures, masks, weapons, and descriptions of the societies and cultures of West Africa. All the exhibits were drawn from Dekker's private collection. The final section of the museum presented the two-hundred-year history of the Dutch slave trade. Curaçao had been an auction centre for slaves sold into the Caribbean and all of South America. Kura hulanda was a Papiamentu term meaning "Dutch courtyard." As Ava walked out the front door of the museum, she found herself standing in just such a courtyard, on the very spot where hundreds of thousands of enslaved people had been bought and sold. She shuddered.
She walked back into the bright sunlight and crossed the Queen Emma Bridge over the harbour to Punda. There she found an outdoor Italian restaurant and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio and a plate of spaghetti aglio e olio.
She recognized an elderly couple from the cruise sitting at the next table. The woman kept looking at her until Ava finally said hello. They introduced themselves as Henry and Bella from Singer Island, Florida, via New York. "I've seen you on the ship with your family. So attractive, all of you," Bella said.
Ava smiled. "Thank you."
"Your mother's name is Jennie, right?"
"I thought so. Such a pistol! She and I close the casino most nights," Bella said. "What are you doing this afternoon?"
"I don't have any plans," Ava said, digging into her spaghetti, which had just arrived.
"Henry and I are going to the Snoga Synagogue. It's the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere." She turned to her husband. "Henry, when was it built?"
"In the sixteen hundreds. Crazy, huh?"
"Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam," Henry said. "They modelled it after the Esnoga Synagogue there."
"It's not far from here," Bella said. "Would you like to join us? It'll be interesting."
Ava was in theory a Roman Catholic. She had been raised in the Church and her mother and sister were still devout. But in her mind the Church had rejected her with its views on homosexuality. She now preferred to think of herself as a Buddhist — live and let live. But she couldn't explain why she still prayed to St. Jude in times of crisis and wore a gold crucifix around her neck.
"Sure, why not?" Ava said.
They paid their bills and left the restaurant. After walking past stores, cafés, and small office buildings, they stopped outside a bright gold stucco building. It was three storeys high, with a red tile roof; the windows and double doors were painted white. Henry and Bella led her into an inner courtyard, where they were greeted by a woman seated at a table.
"The synagogue is there to the right," the woman said. "It was built in 1692, and some additions were made in 1732."
Henry and Bella walked tentatively towards the entrance, Ava trailing behind them. As they stepped inside, she heard them gasp. Ava peered over Bella's shoulder and saw an almost perfect jewel box of a building. A straight line from the doorway led to a wooden pulpit at the opposite end; along either side of the aisle were rows of dark wooden benches. Just above, balconies ran down both sides, and four marble columns extended upwards to an arched ceiling from which hung three huge chandeliers.
They took several steps into the synagogue. As she entered, Ava noticed that Henry and Bella's eyes were transfixed by the floor. She looked down and saw that it was covered entirely in thick white sand.
She watched as Bella and Henry pressed their feet into the sand. Then Bella began to cry. Henry put his arm around her shoulders and started to sob as well. Ava didn't know why they were crying, but she felt their emotion all the same.
"The sand is the Sinai Desert," Henry said. "They brought it here to remind them of Sinai." He kneeled, picked up a handful, and pressed it to his lips.
"This isn't common?" Ava asked softly.
"There's maybe one other synagogue in the world with a floor like this," he said.
Ava was about to follow Henry and Bella farther into the synagogue when her phone rang. She apologized and excused herself, stepping outside. "Ava Lee," she answered.
"Ava, it is Uncle."
Uncle was her partner and mentor; they had been in the debt collection business together for more than ten years. He was in his seventies, but he showed no signs of slowing down and still maintained a massive network of contacts that provided them with business and support. It was a common rumour that in his past life he had ties to the triads. Ava didn't know for certain; she had only the deepest respect for the man she knew.
"Uncle," she said, glancing at her watch. It was two a.m. in Hong Kong, and he was usually asleep well before that. "You're up late."
"Am I disturbing you?"
"I'm in Curaçao. I'm sightseeing."
"Still on that cruise?"
"Can you talk?"
"Are you ready to come back to work?"
She took a deep breath. "That depends on what you have. I have no interest in chasing after some scumbag from General Santos City who cheated people with tuna sashimi that's been gas-flushed twenty times."
"So you are ready."
"What do you have?"
"How soon can you get to Hong Kong?"
"Uncle, is it that important?" she asked, knowing already that it probably was.
"The Emperor of Hubei?"
"He hates being called that. Even if it is said respectfully, he worries that it is offensive to the government and military officials whose support he needs."
"I'm sorry. Do you know him from Wuhan?"
Uncle had been born in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. He had escaped the Communist regime and fled to Hong Kong when he was a young man, but he still maintained close ties there and had built a big enough reputation that his Wuhan roots were a source of pride to many people who lived there. "He knows me from Wuhan," Uncle said.
"He has a problem."
"What is it?"
"I am not sure, but he sounded distressed."
"Certainly pressing, if I read his manner correctly."
"So it's urgent?"
"He asked us to come to Wuhan to talk. He offered to pay our expenses and a fee of fifty thousand dollars for our time."
"I'm still on the cruise for another week."
"He said he needs to see us as soon as possible."
"You mean, Uncle, that he needs to see you."
"No, Ava. He was very specific that you come with me."
"How does he know —"
"That does not matter. He does."
"The cruise —"
"When he says as soon as possible, he does not mean a week from now."
Ava paused. The idea of working for Wong Changxing intrigued her, and if her father hadn't been on the cruise she wouldn't have hesitated to leave for Hong Kong. But she couldn't abandon him so easily. "I'll have to talk to my father," she said.
"He is a man who has always understood the demands of business," Uncle said.
"Perhaps, but I still need to talk to him, and I can't assume he'll be that understanding. So let me call you back."
"I will wait up."
She called her father's cellphone, which he answered on the first ring. She could hear kids shouting and water splashing in the background.
"Can you talk?" she asked.
"I'm at a dolphin sanctuary, or show, or something. Bruce paid several hundred dollars so that he, Marian, and the girls could swim with the dolphins. They're in the water now. I'm supposed to be taking pictures."
"Something has come up," she said.
"Yes, I just got a call from Uncle. He wants me to go to Hong Kong right away."
Her father had heard the rumours about Uncle's past and was quietly disapproving about her association with him. "Is it that important?"
"The Emperor of Hubei."
"I'm told we shouldn't refer to him as that."
"It doesn't change the fact that he's the most powerful man in the province."
"No matter, he's asked us to go to Wuhan for a meeting. I asked if Uncle could go alone, and he said Wong specifically requested that I accompany him."
"And you're calling me to ask for permission."
"You don't have to."
"Yes, I do. This is your holiday, and if you think that my absence will cause any disruption I won't go."
"This holiday was the worst idea —"
"I've spoken to Marian about Bruce."
"And I've spoken to your mother."
"Two immovable forces."
"Bruce is a bureaucrat, professionally and personally. Your mother is every bureaucrat's nightmare. He wants a plan for everything and your mother can't think past her next meal."
"So do you need me? Do you want me to stay?"
"No, you go," he said quickly. "I'll try to spend as much time as I can with Marian and the girls and hope time flies."
"I love you."
"Me too. Be careful."
Ava went inside the synagogue to say goodbye to Henry and Bella. They were sitting on one of the benches, their eyes closed. She left as quietly as she could and made her way back to the ship to look for Jennie Lee.
She found her mother in the casino, sitting at the baccarat table with a stack of twenty-five-dollar chips in front of her.
"I have to leave," Ava said. "Uncle just called. We have a client in Wuhan who needs us."
"Your father won't be happy."
"I spoke to him first and asked his permission. He told me to go."
Her mother shook her head. "You can't leave me alone with them."
"Marian and the girls love you to death. And Daddy is still here."
"You are the only one who understands me."
Excerpted from The Wild Beasts of Wuhan by Ian Hamilton. Copyright © 2012 Ian Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“The Characters Come Alive.” In Book #3 of this fascinating series, Ava Lee, a young Canadian-Chinese forensic accountant works at recovering money stolen. In this case, a wealthy Chinese gentleman from Wuhan, China has been swindled out of 73 million dollars in fake art masterpieces called Fauvist art, which is wild colors also known as wild beasts. She’s not sure the money can be found, due to the matter of time that has passed since the purchase, and the man who brokered the deal has died and his records destroyed, but she promises to look into for a few days, and if leads look promising she’ll have Uncle offer a contract from Hong Kong. Her trail takes her to Denmark, Iceland, London, and New York. Once she discovers the evidence to proceed, she starts working to bring the money back to their clients, only to have the clients decide on vengeance instead. This was another fascinating story featuring the martial arts champ, and the method of her trail to the final source of her investigation. The characters come alive, and Ava Lee is a force to be reckoned with. Highly recommended.
While we're used to cozy mysteries led by such unlikely sleuths as quilters and cats, we usually expect our less-cozy mysteries to have protagonists with more qualifications for the job: cops, ex-cops, PIs, and the like. But there's a growing sub-genre featuring crime-busting accountants. David Dodge, active in the 1940s, may be the father of this sub-genre. Other authors who've played in this pool include Dick Francis (Risk), Gail Farrelly, Marshall Jevons, Colleen Cross and Ashley Fontainne. There's also Ian Hamilton, whose series heroine Ava Lee makes her third appearance in The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. Ava's a Hong Kong-born, Toronto-raised forensic accountant who specializes in finding and recovering money lost to fraud by people who have reasons not to engage the police. She works for Uncle -- who may be connected to the Triads -- and takes a cut of what she extracts from the scammers. In this episode, she's called on to figure out who sold megawealthy Wuhan kingmaker Wong Changxing over $70 million in forged Fauvist paintings (the titular "wild beasts," as the Fauvists were known to 19th-Century art critics). Her hunt takes her most of the way around the world as she pieces together the plot. Ava's acceptable if not overly engaging company. She's smart and capable, pretty much always comes out on top, is an experienced globetrotter, and is (of course) beautiful enough for nearly all the men she runs across to come on to her. Not that it does them much good: she likes girls, a fact that makes no essential difference in her character other than the gender of the person she chooses for the obligatory one-nighter partway through her travels. This is a straightforward follow-the-money story that Ava solves in a fairly straightforward way. If you like lots of twists and turns in your mystery plots, you won't find them here. The art-forgery angle is interesting and you'll learn a few things about the art market. However, the criminal machinations aren't all that opaque, and Ava unearths them through doggedness rather than brilliant leaps of deduction, risky B&E, or applications of physical force. A lot of her progress comes courtesy of Uncle's guanxi, or clout. No matter where she goes, Ava's able to get doors opened and cooperation extracted through a phone call to Uncle, who apparently has nearly limitless reach as well as the ability to work as fast as Ava's nonstop travel schedule. In retrospect, it all seems awfully easy. Ava spends more time in transit or in the shower (say what you will about her, she's impressively clean) than she does detecting. The back-cover copy promises something like a thriller -- Ava is "alluring but deadly," there are "dangerous criminals," and "this is one scam that could get her killed," -- but you won't get anything like that. The greatest physical threat Ava faces is from a group of drunken Russian fishermen, easily disposed of. Even the touted "massive web of corruption" is oversold. Save for some adult language and the lack of recipes, this could be a cozy. The Wild Beasts of Wuhan isn't a bad read if you ignore the back cover and go into the novel with the proper expectations. It's a mild-mannered mystery in which the deadliest weapons are cell phones and laptops and the greatest existential threats to Our Heroine are jet lag and airline food. You get to watch Ava put the pieces together, and if you pay attention, maybe you can solve the puzzle before she does.
Ava Lee undertakes a most formidable task in this, the second in the series about the forensic accountant who specializes in recovering money for a sizable commission in partnership with her mentor, referred to simply as “Uncle,” a rather mysterious man apparently with triad connections, headquartered in Hong Kong and with deep roots in China. It seems that Uncle’s boyhood friend, Wong Changxing, a powerful and impressive industrialist, bought about $100 million worth of paintings, 15 out of the 20 being elaborate forgeries, and upon discovering the fact seeks Uncle’s and Ava’s assistance in recovering the money and saving him from embarrassment should the facts become known. The problem is that the Hong Kong dealer from whom the paintings were purchased ten years before is dead and there are no clues or paperwork to guide Ava in her efforts. But that hardly is a problem for her, as she pursues tracing the transactions, traveling to Denmark, London, Dublin, the Faroe Islands and New York City and learning a lot about the art world in the process. Ava Lee is on a par with the best of the female protagonists like Kinsey Milhone and others, while an accountant, but exhibiting all the talents and attributes of a private eye. She is tough and bold and confident, as she shows us in this latest caper. We are told that the next novel in the series, expected in January 2014, has her pulling her half-brother’s chestnuts out of the fire. Looking forward to reading it! Recommended.