The Hamilton Case

This character study-murder mystery mashup (321 pages) was published in November of 2005 by Back Bay Books. The book takes you to 1930s Ceylon (Sri Lanka). David read The Hamilton Case and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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The Hamilton Case

Michelle De Kretser

This creative novel by beloved Sri Lankan author Michelle De Kretser tells the story of a lawyer in Sri Lanka during the first half of the 20th century. It’s dark and mysterious, with an entertaining sense of claustrophobia.

The ostensible hero, the lawyer, is Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere, the oldest son of an elite Sinhalese family. Sadly, the family is quickly falling from grace when he’s born. His parents spend money faster than they can make it on a frenzy of parties and bad decisions. Stanley, meanwhile, grows up alone and lonely in the family compound.

What sets this novel apart is its structure. Each of its four sections relies on a different point of view to tell the story.

In the opening, a first-person autobiography, Stanley tells his story. It’s a not-unusual coming-of-age story about his relationship with his parents, money, and insecurity. The author lends her observant eye to Stanley with razor-sharp observations and evocative details. For the first hundred pages or so, it’s easy to be sympathetic to this poor kid. When he later turns out to be a rather horrible person, it’s clear why that happens.

The next bit is a full-on Gothic take written in an almost omniscient third person. All the tropes are delightfully at work here. There’s a haunted house and a murder mystery with plenty of family secrets. Ghosts haunt hallways, mad women do horrible things, and servants avoid certain rooms. For a few chapters, Stanley becomes a detective, investigating the ‘Hamilton case:’ the murder of a British landowner in the Sri Lankan jungle. His solution to the crime reverberates through the rest of the story.

At the three-quarter mark, the story goes deeper into the characters’ lives and thoughts in the World War II era. Then, to bring it home, the final section of the tale unfolds through a letter, penned by a previously unremarkable character, to Stanley’s estranged son after the primary action has, we think, been resolved. Another author might have used this device to patch up the plot. Instead, we get another telling with much attention given to the notion that truth is frequently subjective. The author writes, ‘The plot does nothing but thicken.’

One of the overall messages of this book is that the truth can be complicated and, sometimes, simply doesn’t arrive. One of the reasons we readers love mystery novels is that they provide a final answer; they resolve. But The Hamilton Case subverts that. The story may arrive at what seems to be the truth, but it slinks away.

This is a compelling mystery and an incisive exploration of the often fraught, always complex relationship between colonizers and native people. If you enjoy a knotty novel with a bittersweet vibe, take this trip to Sri Lanka.

And one of the jurors told a newspaper reporter that he had been tormented all weekend by the delicate problem of how a sentence of death might be carried out. That a native should hang an Englishman was unthinkable. But could one count on the government, always unreliable over essentials, to go to the expense of bringing in a hangman from Home? That uncertainty alone was enough, said the juror, to ensure that he, for one, would not have returned a Guilty verdict. — Michelle De Kretser

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