Worthy Backstory

The mystery of Ava Lee’s Uncle Chow

This is a review of a mystery novel. That’s right, a mystery novel reviewed in the pages of the Literary Review of Canada — even though mixing the words “literary” and “mystery” in the same sentence breaks with a widely held view that genre fiction is artistic slumming and not worthy of serious consideration.

The critic Edmund Wilson claimed he had outgrown mysteries by the age of twelve. The poet W. H. Auden said whodunits “have nothing to do with works of art.” And Dashiell Hammett, described by the New York Times as “the dean of the hard-­boiled school of detective fiction,” once claimed, with a subversive note of pride, to have been “as bad an influence on American literature” as anyone he could think of.

Still, it’s hard to argue with success. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series has sold in the millions. Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton, and Louise Penny all have sales that are off the charts. Detective stories have produced some of our most enduring fictional ­characters — ­­Adam Dalgliesh, Philip Marlowe, and Jules Maigret, to name a few — creations every bit as iconic as Hagar Shipley or Owen Meany. And their creators — P. D. James, Raymond Chandler, and Georges Simenon — have deservedly taken their place in the canon of popular culture.

Ever since Charles Dickens’s Bleak House gave us Inspector Bucket and Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, mysteries have captured the interest and affection of a huge swath of the reading public. Abraham Lincoln was known to read them to unwind. Yet commercial success and page-­turning plots are often seen as lowbrow, incompatible with literary merit.

The book in question here is Ian Hamilton’s Fate, the eagerly awaited prequel to his popular eleven-­book Ava Lee series, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and garnered its author multiple awards. The main character in that series, which began in 2011, is Ava Lee, a Chinese-­Canadian lesbian and forensic-­accountant-cum-­detective skilled in martial arts. Her specialty: recouping large amounts of money that cannot be recovered using conventional methods. Her ­partner in these enterprises is Uncle Chow Tung, head of a Hong Kong triad, who is both her mentor and her protector. Hamilton’s latest mystery is the first in a trilogy that will form the backstory of the enigmatic Chow Tung — his “lost ­decades” — before he met Ava Lee.

Fate opens in 1959, when Uncle Chow and his fiancée attempt to escape mainland China, which is in the grip of Mao’s agrarian reforms. Their escape ends in tragedy, and the novel’s action flashes forward to late 1960s Hong Kong. Uncle Chow is now the White Paper Fan, or administrator, of the Fanling triad. Serious-­minded and self-­contained, he is valued and respected by gang members for his strategic planning abilities. But when he tries to take the triad out of the extortion racket, he faces opposition from its more conservative elements. The murder of Goa, Fanling’s leader or mountain head, throws Uncle Chow’s ­reformation efforts into confusion, setting off an internal power struggle. And as other triads see an opportunity to take over Fanling territory, the threat of a gang war looms.

Hamilton’s grasp of the Byzantine world of Chinese criminal organizations and their traditions is impressive, a legacy of the more than twenty years he spent travelling throughout the region as a seafood importer-exporter. Living proof that it is never too late, Hamilton did not begin writing fiction until a near-death experience, at the age of sixty-­four, triggered an epiphany. He really wanted to write. A few days after he left a Toronto hospital, following surgery for an aortic aneurysm, he sold his business. A few days after that, he began writing about Ava Lee.

There is no doubt Hamilton is a Canadian phenomenon, and his near-­instant success is testimony to his natural talents. There is no denying his creative powers; after all, convincingly getting inside the head of a lesbian forensic accountant and martial arts practitioner is no small feat for a retired Canadian businessman. Hamilton’s characters are vivid and complex, his plots are ­intricate and compelling. But are his books literature? And what, if anything, does commercial success have to do with art?

The two need not be mutually exclusive. Witness the many literary authors who have dabbled in the dark arts of genre, among them such luminaries as Graham Greene, who described his forays into mysteries (The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man) as “entertainments.” The Booker Prize winner John Banville, who also writes under the name Benjamin Black, eschews the term “genre” and has claimed that crime novels were among the best writing of the twentieth century. Other “literary” authors who have flirted with philistinism include Joyce Carol Oates, William Boyd, and even our own Timothy Findley and Thomas King.

How does Fate measure up? Truthfully, Hamilton’s writing is not as polished as it might be. In fact, his use of language is at best straightforward and workmanlike:

I have no idea. The reason I left so quickly was that I wanted to grab some of the other Red Poles before they could disappear. They were as stunned and surprised as me, and they all claimed to know absolutely nothing about what happened.

But when it comes to pacing, Hamilton is a master. He maintains the tension and suspense that are the hallmarks of a good read. We are never sure who is responsible for the death of the mountain head Goa. We only know that trouble is brewing, and the slow burn keeps us hooked. As any novelist knows, literary or otherwise, pacing and compelling narrative arcs ­are critical — and d­evilishly difficult to achieve.

So this review of Ian Hamilton’s Fate, here in the Literary Review of Canada, is for the many critical readers of policy and literature who are also closet mystery fans. Critics and editors alike do Canadian cultural production a disservice if they turn up their noses at the undeniable pleasure many readers take in fast-­paced stories, and the consummate skill involved in them — detective or otherwise. Just as the Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold understood the appeal of a great burger or strip mall food court, so too must Virginia Woolf yield to Agatha Christie from time to time.

In the words of Ian Rankin, creator of the perennially popular Rebus series (who, by the way, did his PhD thesis on Muriel Spark), “Some of the best crime fiction is literature. And some of the best literature is crime fiction.”