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by Ian Hamilton
Spiderline, January 2017
400 pages
$19.95 CAD
ISBN: 1770899561

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The tenth in his series featuring Asian-Canadian detective Ava Lee and the third of a cluster of novels subtitled "The Triad Years", Ian Hamilton's THE COUTURIER OF MILAN leans fairly heavily on the two novels that precede it: THE KING OF SHANGHAI and THE PRINCELING OF NANJING. With her earlier business partner, Uncle, dead and her new business partners in the venture capital firm Three Sisters (Ava's former client May Ling Wong and sister-in-law Amanda Yee) on board for investing in and promoting the PÖ fashion line, which they begin to do in THE KING OF SHANGHAI, Ava is considerably less of a solo agent than she is in Hamilton's earlier novels. In fact, the Triad Years novels—the Triads referring to the powerful Chinese and Hong Kong crime syndicates—find Ava generally mired in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese feuds between the various societies that make up the triads, as assorted factions jockey for leadership. No longer does she collect debts, using her considerable skills as a forensic accountant, martial arts specialist, and ruthlessly single-minded pursuer of embezzlers and high-stakes thieves. Instead Ava brokers deals, plays peace keeper, and furthers her business interests—all at a greater and greater distance from the grittiness that made up much of the atmosphere of the earlier novels.

No where is this movement away from hands-on, energetic grittiness more clear than in THE COUTURIER OF MILAN. Still preoccupied with the fortunes of PÖ fashion (as she has been for the previous two novels), Ava has to do damage control after Dominic Ventola, the famous couturier and now figurehead and principal partner of a luxury fashion conglomerate, VLG, begins to slag the work of Clark Po publically. He appears to be in a fit of pique after Clark turns down a business offer from Ventola to join VLG and decides to stick with Three Sisters. In an attempt to find a way to force Ventola to retract his unflattering (and untruthful) observations about PÖ fashion, Ava farms out the research into VLG to others. She uses her connections to Xu, one of Uncle's protégés, the current chairman of the Triads, and an investor in Three Sisters, to slow down factory work for and sabotage shipping to VLG and its clients. And, with her bodyguards and muscle, she remains almost wholly insulated from any nastiness that occurs. In a rather telling moment of inactivity, Ava and May Ling hide out in the luxurious Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, pretending that they have been victims of a mafia-ordered assault.

All of which is to say that Hamilton has stumbled a bit with THE COUTURIER OF MILAN, which is disappointing for his fans (among whom I count myself). The motive for the high-powered, multi-millionaire Ventola's pique—that any designer who's not with VLG is necessarily competition—is murky at best, begging the question as to why such a successful figure would care about an upstart Asian designer. And from beginning to end Ventola's ongoing animus is unchanging and hard to fathom. Hamilton seems most intrigued about bringing the East and West into confrontation, pitting the Asian triads against the Italian mafia and claiming that the former is older, more pervasive, and more powerful. Lost in the grand conflict is, unfortunately, Ava Lee, who hardly gets a chance to do much of anything. Except, that is, to get a public retraction from Ventola, thus ending the novel at almost the point at which it begins—with Clark Po's success in London reestablished.

§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal, specializing in American literature; she has published on P.D. James.

Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, April 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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