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The Hamilton Case

The Hamilton Case

3.5 4
by Michelle de Kretser

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A flamboyant beauty who once partied with the Prince of Wales and who now, in her seventh decade, has "gone native" in a Ceylonese jungle. A proud, Oxford-educated lawyer who unwittingly seals his own professional fate when he dares to solve the sensational Hamilton murder case that has rocked the upper echelons of local society. A young woman who retreats from her


A flamboyant beauty who once partied with the Prince of Wales and who now, in her seventh decade, has "gone native" in a Ceylonese jungle. A proud, Oxford-educated lawyer who unwittingly seals his own professional fate when he dares to solve the sensational Hamilton murder case that has rocked the upper echelons of local society. A young woman who retreats from her family and the world after her infant brother is found suffocated in his crib. These are among the linked lives compellingly portrayed in a novel everywhere hailed for its dazzling grace and savage wit--a spellbinding tale of family and duty, of legacy and identity, a novel that brilliantly probes the ultimate mystery of what makes us who we are.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Evoking the exotic culture and racial tensions of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in the early and mid-20th century, de Kretser offers a beguiling story of an ambitious man whose own weaknesses crush his dreams of glory.

Sam Obeysekere is born in Ceylon to a privileged family. His father is an adviser to the British colonials, and Sam is educated at Oxford, returning home to practice law. When he's approached to give his thoughts on the Hamilton case, a shocking murder under investigation, Sam is flattered by the request and handily declares an Englishman guilty of the crime. But his accusation will have devastating consequences, and Sam will spend the rest of his life with the knowledge that his involvement in the Hamilton case precipitated the derailment of his future.

The Hamilton Case is not only an intriguing whodunit but also a powerful psychological novel. Sam's pride of accomplishment masks a deep insecurity, and his ego suffers further injuries when he jealously watches others attain what he has longed for. A Sri Lankan who moved to Australia as a teenager, de Kretser hails from a corner of the world few readers know well. Her story of the flawed hero, Sam, combined with her depiction of Ceylon, makes for a remarkable book, both classic and fresh. (Summer 2004 Selection)

William Boyd
The Hamilton Case does enchant, certainly, but -- more important -- the book admirably and resolutely sees the world as it really is.
The New York Times
Chris Lehmann
In its patient, layered portrait of a man's colossal folly in acquiring an entirely mistaken view of his role in life, The Hamilton Case -- originally published last year in de Kretser's adopted homeland of Australia -- has earned many comparisons with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Yet while de Kretser does share some of Ishiguro's icy precision in eliciting her characters' crabbed delusions, she has produced something finally warmer and more compassionate than Ishiguro's chilling novel. For even as she constructs an elegant, pointed cautionary tale against the false comforts of overly tidy narrative certainties, de Kretser also denies readers the easy luxury of shuddering primly at Sam's inhumanity.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
De Kretser's accomplished second novel (after 2000's The Rose Grower), set in the author's native Sri Lanka in the years before its independence in 1948, is as much a haunting character study as it is an elusive murder mystery and a deep exploration of colonialism. At the heart of the story is Sam Obeysekere, a brilliant Ceylonese prosecutor and perfect English gentleman who isn't, of course, English. Born into a privileged but unstable family his "Pater" intentionally squanders their wealth; his "Mater" sleeps around, smashes expensive crystal and feels a "massive indifference" to her son; and his beloved sister seems bent on self-destruction Sam, as an adult, focuses on his young son and his career. By all accounts, he's prospering, able to take his place beside the island's ruling class of Brits, Dutch burghers and Portuguese. But when he offers to help solve the murder of an English tea grower shot dead in the jungle, Sam makes a "central mistake" that destabilizes his life and, in a way, the English-dominated life of his whole "mongrel" nation. De Kretser's self-deluding protagonist will no doubt remind readers of the butler in The Remains of the Day: it's a sharp portrayal of assimilation that she manages to make complex and even poignant ("Are we to become a nation capable of talking only to itself, a lunatic on the world stage?"). But Sam is his own unique and problematic self, and like everything else in this lush, uneasy world, from the secondary characters to the ghost-haunted jungle, he is capable of shocking. De Kretser's fine, brooding, mischievous style is sure to captivate fans of serious literary fiction. Agent, Sarah Lutyens. (May) Forecast: The Hamilton Case got great reviews in the U.K., and interviewers seemed positively charmed by de Kretser herself. With a four-city author tour and national advertising, this Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick should find itself a sizable and appreciative audience. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At the heart of de Kretser's dark and twisted second novel (after The Rose Grower) is a murder trial, with which Oxford-educated lawyer Sam Obeysekere hopes to make his career. Born into the moneyed class of colonial Ceylon, he is continually thwarted in his ambitions to be accepted by the ruling British. Then Hamilton, an English coffee grower, is found murdered, and as the appointed prosecutor Sam believes he can solve the case-and win a judicial appointment in the bargain. Suspicion shifts from two native workers to Hamilton's friend and estate manager (also English), whose pregnant young wife takes the stand to refute his alibi and provide his motive-her husband had become enraged when she confessed that Hamilton had been stalking and harassing her. Many years later, long after Sam's personal and professional fortunes have foundered, the truth is revealed in a short story by an old schoolmate. Although there is little to admire in Sam's heartless, conniving character, readers will be drawn in by de Kretser's fine writing, evocative descriptions of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and swift pacing. The author is Sri Lankan and lives in Australia. For most public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In pre-Independence Ceylon, an arrogant native prosecutor misreads the British rulers he reveres-and gets his comeuppance. 1902: Sam Obeysekere is born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), of a family that's part of the colony's elite. Maud, his mother, is a great beauty, his father an amiable spendthrift. Sam believes in justice, the British Empire, and, above all, himself, the firstborn (when he senses a potential rival in baby Leo, he wills his sister Claudia to smother the infant). By the time he graduates from Oxford and returns to Ceylon as a barrister, his father is dead, the fortune gone, and Maud has engineered Claudia's marriage to Jaya, Sam's detested contemporary, a philanderer and demagogue. But Sam is undaunted. As God's gift to the courtroom, he knows the money will roll in, and it does. A judgeship beckons. Then the Hamilton case erupts. The murder of the English tea planter baffles the authorities until Sam's intervention nets a suspect. Sam is a celebrity! But, alas, the suspect is another Englishman. Sam's belief that the English prize justice over tribal solidarity proves naive, and, though his career still flourishes, all hope of a judgeship is dead. Meanwhile, Claudia has killed herself and her baby. Sam avenges her death by banishing his impoverished mother to the family estate in the jungle, driving the former socialite into eccentricity and madness. Back in Colombo, Sam marries a plain heiress, Leela, whom he treats brutally. Throughout, de Kretser (The Rose Grower, 2000) writes beautifully, but her structure is awkward (we end with a meaty postscript from a minor character), and she kills off her characters at such a clip (at least 12 deaths, mostly violent) that we havelittle sense of evolving relationships. Overall, an impressive re-creation of a vanished colonial culture and its contradictions, but not a happy fit with the domestic drama of the tormented Obeysekeres.
From the Publisher
Praise for The Rose Grower:
“Beautifully written, full of wit and pathos and evocative images…Michelle de Kretser’s final pages are a triumph, quietly moving and with only one victor: a deep red rose.” — Guardian

The Rose Grower is much more than a love story. It’s an intelligent novel that breathes brilliant life into a pivotal period in Western history.” — Boston Globe

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
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Read an Excerpt


'I always made it my business, at least, to know the part thoroughly'


A Wise Child

A name is the first story that attaches itself to a life. Consider mine: Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere. It tells of geography, history, love and uncertainty. I was born on an island suspended midway on the golden trade route between East and West - a useful bauble, fingered and pocketed by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in turn. In 1902, when I was born, Sir Alban Marriott was Governor and he agreed to be my godfather. How could he refuse? He had been in thrall to my mother ever since she sent him the skin of a leopard she had shot, along with a note. I shall call on you between five and six this evening. The skin is for the small blue reception room, which is ideally suited to fornication and whatnot. Her name was Maud and she was a great beauty. Also a first-rate shot. In Scotland she had stalked deer with the Prince of Wales; his performance, she reported, was mediocre. He presented her with a brooch fashioned from an eagle's talon mounted on silver and onyx. Mater dismissed it as monumentally obvious and palmed it off on her stewardess in lieu of a tip on her voyage home.

My father insisted on calling me Stanley, although my mother hated the name. I have often pondered the significance of Pater's uncharacteristic resolve. His father, too, was a Stanley, so he might simply have been affirming family tradition. On the other hand, might his assertion of my paternal provenance betray some anxiety about it? My mother had a certain reputation. It was alleged that she once swam in a jungle pool wearing only herbloomers, even though there were gentlemen and snakes present. Half of Colombo society followed the lead of Lady Marriott, who was stout and afflicted with shingles, in cutting her dead. Mater said Stanley was fit only for a peon, so it was just as well my initials spelt Sam. These days there is no one left to remember that I was ever called anything else.

Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere: between the names that define me as my father's child falls the shadow of an Englishman who didn't serve a second term as Governor. Shortly after his death eight years ago a package from a firm of London solicitors found its way to my desk. It contained a small murky oil painting of a large and largely unclad female gathering flowers and berries against a backdrop of broken marble columns in a woodland glade. The artist - quite unknown to the works of reference I have consulted - signed himself Tom Baltran. The executor's letter accompanying the painting explained that the Baltrans and the Marriotts were cousins. Moreover, it continued, the Hon. Thomas was descended on the distaff side from the first Dukeof St Albans, Charles II's illegitimate son by Nell Gwynne. The artist's hefty nymph was held, in family lore, to represent the orange-seller, but this was purely speculative. Sir Alban, wrote his solicitor, was most anxious for this painting, the gem of his small collection, to pass to you. He retained the warmest memories of his years in Ceylon, and often referred to happy times spent in the company of your mother.

An ambiguous legacy, wouldn't you say? I keep the painting in a cabinet, along with Sir Alban's other gift, a silver eggcup presented on the occasion of my christening. Now and then I set these objects before me and study them. An egg, a mistress, a bastard son: their message seems unequivocal. But the testimony of signs is unreli-able. Within minutes I have reasoned that an eggcup is a wholly conventional gift on the part of a godparent, and that the Hon. Thomas's daub points only to the ill-judged sentimentality of a nonagenarian. The argument prevails for a brief interval; then doubt creeps in again. These sessions always end the same way: I cross to my mirror where reassurance waits in the solid evidence of my flesh.

If you wish to ascertain a man's lineage, read his face not his birth certificate.Myskin is as darkas myfather's, our branch of the Obeysekeres being famously black. Like Pater, I am of average height and inclined to portliness in age. We share a high forehead, thick, springing hair, a curved nose and assertive ears. We are not handsome men. But we have presence. Whereas Sir Alban, as he appears in my parents' photograph album, is tall and hollow-chested, with pointed features and an entirely unconvincing moustache. He clasps his left wrist in his right hand, holding himself together.

By now it will be apparent that my pen is not constrained by decorum. I have always set great store by the truth, a virtue not usually prized in my profession. But it was my ability to see accurately and to speak the truth, without concern for convention or fear of reprisal, that made my name in a different sense. The very notoriety of the Hamilton case has seen it shrouded in the fog of rumour, conjecture and misinformation that passes for analysis in the drawing rooms of this country. In these pages I intend to set down the facts of the matter at last.

Meet the Author

Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and migrated to Australia with her family in 1972. She has taught English at the University of Melbourne, as well as working as an editor and book reviewer. Her novels, The Rose Grower (1999), The Hamilton Case (2003) and The Lost Dog (2008) have been published across the world and translated into several languages. The Hamilton Case was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for South-East Asia and the Pacific, the Encore Award and the Tasmania Pacific Prize for Australian and New Zealand fiction. She lives in Melbourne.

Brief Biography

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Date of Birth:
November 11, 1957
Place of Birth:
Colombo, Sri Lanka
B.A. (Hons), 1979; Maîtrise-ès-lettres, 1982

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Hamilton Case 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
RTfromIL More than 1 year ago
I picked this book because it was part of b&n.com's bargin books (which I pig out on at least once a year). What a pleasant surprise!

The writing style drew me in, first, because it is a relaxed sort of narrative, but the dry wit of the initial "author" kept me reading. And then the twist: the Hamilton Case is what the first author, writing in the first person, meant to write about; but the second author, writing in the third person, has to tell the WHOLE tale.

You have to read it to the end to find out why the first-person author suddenly stopped the manuscript and an outsider picked up the narrative.

This was great. I'm torn between sharing it with my reading friends and risk never seeing it again, or just hoarding it for myself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I must admit, i expected fine things from the Hamilton Case. Intrigued by the notion of mystery and murder, i leapt into the book full of anticipation. Imagine my surprise at the decided lack of emphasis on the title issue, 'The Hamilton Case'. Forcing myself not to skip some of the more mundane passages, i found myself bewildered as to the lack of attention the case was given. I must say that i found myself put-out at the misleading title, and disappointed in my aspirations to an afternoon involved in speculation and investigation. Although i must say that i enjoyed Sam's drily amusing desciptions of characters in his life, particularly his childhood, i found myself unable to warm to him, or indeed take much interest in his life. I found myself finishing the book with the determination to find closure, but little else. I found it depressing, and discomforting, and certainly not an enjoyable read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really liked this one. It was different from anything that I had ever read before, especially from the South Asian fiction genre. Her descriptions are unique and stay with you a long time. I particularly enjoyed the glimpse of colonial life in Ceylon. It reminded me of stories my grandfather would share of growing up in India and Britain. While the book does drag in parts, overall it was an extremely enjoyable and informative read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
De Kretser writes very beautifully. No argument here. But her poesy is in the service of a dreary, relentlessly depressing story. The 'hero' here, a stand in for an 'upstanding' colonialized man, is a well-rounded lifeless bore. (Gee, thanks for fleshing him out!) His family life is filled with tragedy, humiliation and failure. Following his story is tedious as it is painful. And while it may allow for 'penetrating' insight into the Sinhalese vs. Tamil conundrum that still plagues the island, guess what: write an essay about it. Don't belabor your novel with this heady stuff, if you can't build a cogent through-line of plot and likeable character. A Suitable Boy, for example, does precisely this: You can read and enjoy Vikram Seth's long, thorough chapters about Indian labor history, because there are characters -- likeable characters and villians -- that you care about. The Hamilton Case is just filled with people you feel sorry for. The novel's strongest point -- the mystery that title references -- takes up perhaps 30 pages of the book (and I'm being generous). And worse: the mystery surfaces and then suddenly reappears at the end -- our payoff for having suffered through such dreary, plotless meandering. That payoff is a pretty nifty meditation on mystery and the way we can shift blame and guilt. And if you extend that analysis, De Krester may want us to wonder who shaped her hero 'Obey' and his family. Are the english to blame? Or his parents? Or the spirit world? But frankly, after so much suffering through this ambling horrorshow, it is hard to care. I'm just mad (can you tell?) I wasted a few hours reading this.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was truly a pleasure to read. It is beatifully written. It reminds me of a great novel that one is forced to read for school and then can't put down. I actually re-read the short 2 page opening chapter numerous times. I was dazzled by the use of language and the way the author introduced the main characters and themes in such a vivid and unforgetable way. I was hooked from the start.