Ava Lee is a petite, powerful and slightly exotic Chinese Canadian.
She’s also a forensic accountant, skilled in martial arts, and willing to wade into treacherous situations in order to collect extremely large debts, usually accrued through corruption, and mostly in Asia.
And she’s a lesbian with a private life every bit as intriguing as her unorthodox crime-fighting career.
Lee is the creation of author Ian Hamilton. At 72, he’s had an extremely varied and unconventional career himself. He’s been a journalist, a civil servant with stints in several different departments of the federal government, and a businessman running seafood companies. He’s worked in more than 30 countries, and has travelled to China at least 50 times since he first visited the country in 1989.
In 2009, while still working, he suffered an aneurism and underwent major surgery. When he recovered, he decided to change his life and spend his remaining time doing exactly what he wanted to do.
So he began taking himself downstairs in his Burlington home every morning, still in his P.J.s and with a cup of coffee in his hand, to write about the exploits of his favourite heroine, drawing on his familiarity with China as the backdrop.
The first time he sat down to write, he was still highly medicated from his surgery, he says. A name came to him, and a character, fully formed.
“People ask me, ‘how did you come up with her?’ I really didn’t know.”
It was a psychiatrist who told him he did know — he drew on his years of experience with Chinese culture, its history, people and food, and the many strong women in his family who had surrounded him all his life.
That and his “enormous respect” for women led him to feel comfortable with a female as his main character, he says, but he’s still unsure why she’s a lesbian — the psychiatrist suggested he didn’t want her sleeping with other men.
He published the first of the Ava Lee series, The Water Rat of Wanchai, in 2011. When he had finished writing it, he had no idea if it was any good or if it would sell, and showed it to his wife, “a good reader and very critical,” to judge.
“It’s not bad,” she told him, a rave review from her. If she had instead said it was crap, he would have put it away in a drawer, and that would have been the end of it, he says. But instead, he went back to writing — he’d already decided on the plot for the second book when he was halfway through the first.
He published three books that year, and with two new books to launch, he’s up to 14 of the Ava Lee mysteries. He is also introducing a new series about Uncle, her enigmatic partner, and Uncle’s life before we’re introduced to Ava.
Hamilton has been to Niagara-on-the-Lake twice for the NOTL Public Library’s Wine and Words series. He has built up quite a fan base here, and will be back Wednesday, Jan. 16 — not for the popular program but to launch his two latest books.
He says he loves coming to NOTL, and Debbie Krause, the program co-ordinator, says his local fans love to see him.
He will read from his Uncle prequel to a gathering in the library rotunda, then chat with the audience.
Hamilton, says Krause, is a crowd pleaser. He’s relaxed, happy to answer questions and chat about writing. When she announced the launch to the Wine and Words crowd in December, there was a loud, collective sigh of pleasure from those in attendance upon hearing he would be making another visit to town, she says.
Tickets for the book launch and reception are $10, and can be reserved online at https://notlpubliclibrary.org/eventcalendar.