“The Imam of Tawi-Tawi” by Ian Hamilton


Canada’s answer to—whom? Jason Bourne?—is a lesbian forensic accountant of Chinese extraction by the name of Ava Lee. But in The Imam of Tawi-Tawi, her tenth outing, Ava isn’t this time tracking down missing millions but has instead been sucked into the global “War on Terror”.

There are suspicions that the little-known and mysterious Zakat College in Tawi-Tawi, a Muslim-majority island about as far south in the Philippines as one can go, is training terrorists. Ava has been asked, as a favor to a mentor, to find out what is going on. The suspicions turn out to be correct, the CIA inevitably gets involved, but things are not (of course) as they first seem.

The worldview presented by Hamilton and Ava is one their southern neighbors might expect from Canadians: robust opposition to what is wrong in the world yet respect for diversity. Islamic terrorism is a scourge, yet almost all Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood, actively oppose it as well. American institutions—including the CIA—are on the whole staffed by professional, well-meaning people, but American political operatives and businessmen are narrow-minded would-be bullies and/or religious zealots.

There is more than an undercurrent of commentary on Philippine and American politics as well as contemporary Chinese society. Indeed, the standard disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” is a little disingenuous: it’s not particularly difficult to discern who might have inspired some of the walk-on parts.

The Imam of Tawi-Tawi plods a little in the first sections. There are numerous references to people and episodes from earlier adventures, which perhaps bring a frisson of recognition to those that have read the previous nine but which are otherwise obscure. Indeed, the only real explanation for a Philippine senator asking Ava to undertake this highly sensitive investigation is the interlocking favors and relationships apparently built up in previous volumes. The descriptions of hotel meals, showers and massages slow the action down. And for those new to the series, Ava’s sudden flurry of martial arts moves to take out a bodyguard comes out of nowhere.

Hamilton is, however, strong on details—municipal geography, airlines, hotel lobbies—which add greatly to the sense of place. But the real strength of The Imam of Tawi-Tawi is the clever twist in the tale that occurs some three-quarters of the way through the book. To say anything more would be to risk giving something away.


The Imam of Tawi-Tawi, Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi Press/Spiderline, January 2018)
The Imam of Tawi-Tawi, Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi Press/Spiderline, January 2018)

While genre fiction rarely lends itself to deep analysis, there are nevertheless aspects of The Imam of Tawi-Tawi—and, it would appear from press reports, the series as a whole—that are somewhat curious. Ava’s lesbianism seems little more than a device than to allow her to navigate a largely male-populated story without the need for potential romantic engagement. Ava’s well-known predilection for brands—Shanghai Tang appears more than once; Ava’s preferred hotel in Hong Kong is the Mandarin, but the Peninsula in Manila—has an apparent corollary in some general repetition: we are told on at least three different occasions that Ava pulls on a “T-shirt and underwear”.

And then there are passages like


The fitness centre was almost deserted. That didn’t surprise [Eva]. Generally, Asians didn’t share the Western mania for hard physical exercise. May Ling and Amanda, for example, never lifted anything heavier than a wineglass, and hurrying in high heels was the extent of their aerobic workouts.


Perhaps “young Chinese-Canadian professional women”, who—according to an article in Macleans from a few years back—constitute one of Ava Lee’s main group of fans, really hold such views, but Asians on this side of the Pacific might mistake the implied affection for disdain.


These narrative tics notwithstanding, the Canadian protagonist’s thoughtful tolerance is refreshing in a mystery/thriller and, once one exercises the suspension of disbelief that is often de rigueur in such books, Hamilton can spin a good yarn.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.