We recently had the opportunity to talk to Ian Hamilton about his new book and the latest installment in the Ava Lee series, The Princeling of Nanjing. His wildly popular series is driven by the small but fierce Ava Lee, a forensic accountant who investigates corruption in the rich and powerful all over the world. Here’s what Ian had to say about his new book, where he draws inspiration from, and where he sees the series going in the future.
1. What can we expect from Ava Lee in The Princeling of Nanjing?
In the Princeling of Nanjing, Ava ups the ante again. This time her target is the corrupt governor of a Chinese province, and what makes the story particularly compelling, is that Ava quickly learns that corruption is the norm at that level of government. It’s all a matter of degree, and as such, corruption by itself doesn’t surprise anyone or lead to punishment. She has to find other levers to pull.
2. Ava Lee has tackled everything from art fraud to online gambling. What inspired you to explore the Triad organization and drug trafficking in The Princeling of Nanjing?
There are several themes running through the Princeling. There is some focus on Xu’s Triad organization and his continuing attempts to provide long-term stability for his people. Dealing in drugs — which he’s being pressured to do — is the complete opposite of where he wants to go. I also had the chance to explore the relationship between business and government in China. The Triads, in that sense, are treated as just another business.
3. Ava’s job as a forensic accountant makes her pretty unique in crime fiction. What is it about the world of taxes, money, and law that interests you?
Money and law (or lack of it) are what makes the world tick. I’ve always believed that economic crime can be, and often is, more devastating than physical crime. Businesses are lost. Families disintegrate. Friendships disappear. Lives are completely ruined. Think of Bernie Madoff and how many lives he destroyed, and how many suicides he caused.
4. Right now there is a lot of talk about diversity in literature. When you were writing the first installment of the series, did you make a conscious choice to focus on a character that represents a minority group?
When I sat down to write the first Ava Lee novel, I am almost embarrassed to admit that all I had to get started was one sentence and the name Ava Lee. I did not do an outline. I did not pre-plot. There was no list of character attributes, no little boxes to check. She came to me fully-formed, and there were times when I was writing that first book that even I was surprised by her as a character.
5. How have your past careers influenced your writing?
My past careers have had an enormous influence on my writing. I have a business background, so I have some knowledge about accounting, and business practices and scams. For that business, I spent more than 20 years travelling extensively and often to Europe and Asia (most often to Asia). I only write about places I’ve been, and thankfully I’ve been to a lot. As I travelled, I made it a point to read as much as I could about the places I was visiting, the cultures I was experiencing, and the people I was meeting.
6. Crime fiction series tend to have strong and passionate readers. Being an author of a crime fiction series with a dedicated fan base, what do you think it is about the genre that draws such enthusiasm from its readers as compared to others?
Crime fiction readers aren’t different than readers of any other genre — they want to read about memorable characters. When they find one, they are drawn back to him or her. I get emails from readers from all over the world who — despite their diversity — all identify with and almost feel a kinship to Ava. It’s as if they feel they know her. The character has to be able to get into people’s heads. Ava does.
7. What crime writers do you draw inspiration from?
I am a huge fan of the genre and the list of my favourites could be very long, but I’ll restrict it to a few. Ross Macdonald, James Lee Burke, Michael Dibdin, Richard Stark, and (even though he might not be considered in the genre) John le Carré.
8. What’s next for Ava Lee in the next installment of the series?
In the next book — which I hope to finish well before Christmas — Ava’s life continues to change and expand. The focus will be on the fashion industry, specifically the luxury brand segment, but it will involve Xu and his Triads, and the Italian mafia group, the Camorra. Ava’s love life is also explored in more detail.
In The Princeling of Nanjing, Ava is in Shanghai for the launch of the PÖ clothing line. She has invited Xu, and over the course of the glitzy event and a late-night dinner, she detects a certain hesitancy in him. He confides that the Tsai family, headed by Tsai Lian, the governor of Jiangsu Province and a “princeling” — he is the son of a general who was on the Long March with Mao and a member of China’s power elite — is trying to force him and his Triad organization back into the drug business. Xu is already paying millions of dollars a year to various Tsai businesses, but the family wants more and thinks the new venture can deliver it. Xu believes this move would lead to his eventual destruction and feels he has nowhere to turn. If he opposes them, they will crush him. If he goes along with them, he thinks that inevitably the police and military will hunt him down.
Ava sets out to help Xu deter the Tsai family. As she digs into the breadth and depth of the family’s wealth and corruption, she gets caught up in a huge tangled web, extending all the way to the U.S. and the U.K., where it reaches the top echelons of political power.