Sunday, May 4, 2014

Wherein I Am Unkind to a Book

WARNING:  What follows is filled with spoilers.  Proceed at your own risk.

I recently read Ian Hamilton's The Disciple of Las Vegas, the (apparently) second book (but the first one I have read) in a series (now encompassing 6 books) featuring Ava Lee, a Canadian based, ethnic Chinese recoverer of misappropriated funds.  (Although the series description of her is as a forensic accountant, at least in this book, there is no accounting at all.)  Barring a couple of rather unnecessary stylistic tics, Hamilton writes reasonably well.  But The Disciple of Las Vegas is a mess of a book, and I am uncertain whether Lee will grow on me as a character.

Strictly speaking this is not a mystery.  We know very early on what has been done and who did it.  (For those who insist on murders in their mysteries, look elsewhere; no one dies in the making of this book.)  Lee actually discovers nothing--all the discovery is done by others.  It's more of a reverse-caper story.

To summarize the plot:  Lee and her (unnamed) uncle operate a business which recovers money stolen from their clients.  Her uncle (and the business) is based in Hong Kong; Lee lives in Toronto.  Lee, who attended a number of excellent schools and has qualifications in accounting (although it's not clear whether she has the equivalent of a CPA license), teamed up with her uncle because, well, accounting is boring.  In addition to her accounting qualifications, she is a martial artist of some skill. 

In this second entry in the series, Lee is recovering from her last job (in which she was apparently beaten rather severely with a belt) when her uncle calls her about a job offer from Tommy Ordonez (an ethnic Chinese who has adopted a Philippine name), a Manila-based billionaire with a diverse set of business interests.  (These are co-run by Chang Wang, an old friend of her uncle's--they are from the Wuhan district of China.)  Ordonez's brother (Phillip Chew), who is nominally in charge of the Canadian part of the empire, has apparently lost about $60 million in a real-estate investment scam.  Ordonez wants to get it back.  Actually, Chew has lost the money playing Texas Hold-'Em on an online poker site called The River.  Lee's job is to recover as much of the $60 million as possible.

With that as a summary, let me get immediately to the aspect of the book I find most problematic.  Lee eventually recovers the money by torturing David Douglas (a/k/a "The Disciple," in poker-playing circles) and his partner Jeremy Ashton, who essentially own The River.  As it happens, the site is losing, not making, money.  Because of these losses, they have installed a piece of code in the operating system that allows them to see everyone's hands; Douglas, using two aliases, has been playing in the games and, using his knowledge of all the hands, winning a lot, and using those winnings to convince their primary backer that the venture is profitable--although any audit of their books would clearly show that it is not making any money.  Under torture, they sign confessions about their subversion of the games on their site and also sign a letter authorizing transfer of the funds to accounts specified by Lee (and she threatens to have them killed if they do anything about it).  (This letter also requires the signature of Ashton's fiancĂ©e, Lily Simmons, whose father is a self-made British industrialist-turned-politician currently in the Cabinet.  Lee attempts to blackmail Simmons into signing.)

First of all, had either Douglas or Ashton gone to the police after they were released, they could have easily repudiated their signatures, as they were given under duress (proof of which is Douglas's missing left thumb).  And Simmons--who eventually did sign the transfer letter--could also easily have repudiated her signature.  So, given rational antagonists (and assuming that part of that rationality is not believing her murder threats), what has she got?  Exactly nothing.

Second, I have trouble taking the side of a protagonist who uses such methods, even for desirable objectives (and I'm not assuming the objectives are necessarily desirable).  I prefer my protagonists to be at least somewhat ethical.

This is not the end of the plot problems.  Douglas and Ashton got in trouble because The River was not making a profit.  But Hamilton never lets us understand how that happens.  The losses are simply a MacGuffin.  So how do poker sites turn a profit?  Well, first of all, their costs are fairly low.  They need very few employees--and no physical facilities.  They need a deal-generating program.  And they need a program that allows them to collect fees from the players and transfer funds from losers to winners.  (And they need to advertise--probably the biggest expense.)  Their fees come from the following sources:  (1) A cut from each hand played, either a flat fee per hand, or a (small) percentage of each pot.  (2) A flat playing fee.  (3) Tournament entry fees (for tournaments, rather than regular games).  So, basically, to lose money, a site must be failing to attract players.  This is never apparent from the book.

Another problem is that The River is "located" on a Native American reservation and regulated by the tribal council.  And the regulators know who is playing behind the table aliases.  So the regulators know that Douglas is playing in a game on a site that he owns.  I'm not sure about this, but I suspect that, for any honest regulator (and the tribe involved is presented as honest), this would be a serious red flag.  And for any players, having the owner of the site in the game should also be a red flag.  Yet no one seems concerned by any of this.

A third problem concerns wire transfers of amounts in the millions.  This is a lesser problem, because there are places that will gladly make and accept such transfers.  U.S. banks will  transfer such funds and also accept them, but they have to be reported to the IRS.  And U.S. banks are involved in at least the transfers from the scammed players.  Yet no mention is made of this.

Finally, there is the issue of the continual reference to the real, high-end consumer products that seem to dominate Lee's existence--her clothing, her perfume, her watch, hew luggage and handbags (we know, for example, that she has with her on the travels both a Hermes bag and a Chanel bag).  I realize that Hamilton is trying to use this to help define her character (including her tendency to notice, and be able to identify, what others are wearing), and I'm OK with that--to a point.  When the number of such things throughout the book passes the century mark, however, it's distracting and annoying.

If this is as good as it gets, this is not a series for me.  I expect more from my authors.