The Two Sisters of Borneo by Ian Hamilton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My mother and brother are big fans of this series of detective novels, by Ian Fleming, with the heroine, Ava Lee, a Chinese-Canadian lesbian. And Mom basically thrust his book onto me, wanting to know what I thought. I was, I admit, a bit suspicious. Even though I read that Chinese-Canadians, lesbians, and Chinese-Canadian lesbians are fans of the series, it seemed a bit suss for an older white guy to be using this particular identity as his hero.
The thing is though, I can’t find anything objectionable about the hero of the book, as the telling strangely lacks details that I could find objectionable. The hero is a character. The hero of his books. And it doesn’t feel like her identity is being wielded in a way to get attention, or done in a sloppy fashion. Lee is wealthy and well-dressed, in a seemingly healthy relationship with someone she doesn’t necessarily see a lot of, is a master of an obscure form of martial arts and is a forensic accountant. Also, in this book, she shows proper concern for a mentor (business partner) who is dying.
While there are details about her, and she has a voice, I never lose the sense of an author carefully plotting a book and moving around pieces, as if on a chess board. So, the hero could have been a retired Welsh-born journalist and civil servant, like the author himself, or it could be a Chinese-Canadian lesbian forensic accountant. The details just seemed, like the details of the plot, a way of keeping the book moving along.
And yet, I found the story pretty lifeless. The main plotline here is forensic accounting, that money is being stolen under the cover of bankruptcy and insolvency. The characters are sketched in terms of their size and build, and probably the most attention in the book goes to their clothes and the labels they are wearing. There is also a ton of detail about a fairly traditional Chinese wedding, and, uh, eating dim sum and a funeral. While my mother and brother found this clever, how well the author captured these events, I found the recounting somewhat anthropological. In the book, there are some good people … and a few sketchy people. I can’t pinpoint why I find the dialogue so stilted and unnatural, but it all felt very pedestrian. How about this gem: ‘Growing a business when you’re undercapitalized isn’t any fun’? Everyone speaks in a very similar voice, except for Uncle, who seems to purposely not speak with any contractions.
It takes more than two thirds of the book for something to happen that interests me, and as I expected, the villain HAD to be someone different than the only possibility sketched out for most of the book, but there certainly were few red herrings and no twists or turns. It IS an easy read, and because it’s so easy to read, I guess a page-turner. And if my mother and brother like reading a detective novel about a Chinese-Canadian lesbian forensic accountant, than really, I shouldn’t be reviewing this as literature and simply be glad that they are enjoying the book and series.