Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and emigrated to Australia when she was 14. Her first novel, The Rose Grower, was published in 1999. She has taught literature at Melbourne University and worked as an editor and a reviewer. The Hamilton Case is her second novel.
Author biography courtesy of Little, Brown & Company.
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In anticipation of the 2004 Discover Great New Writers Awards, de Kretser answered a few of our questions:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I'm terribly sorry, but I can't answer questions like this one. A huge number of books (and films, etc.) have been important to me at various stages of my life and for all kinds of reasons.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Anything by Penelope Fitzgerald, but especially The Blue Flower because she is a marvelous writer who is scarcely known in Australia.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Joan London, author of Gilgamesh -- a wonderful Australian fiction writer whose work is not widely known outside Australia.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep reading. Keep writing.
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In Crime Time magazine, de Kretser discussed some early influences which led her to write The Hamilton Case.
I grew up in Ceylon in the 1960s, a time and place when murder was in the air. Not the ethnic violence, the large-scale public murders with their numbing statistics that would later become synonymous with Sri Lanka, but intimate, claustrophobic tragedies reported by the press in tones of scandalised righteousness. A goaded servant seized a bread-knife and slit his master's throat. A diplomat's Eurasian mistress was shot in the chest as she stumbled down an embassy staircase, pleading for mercy. A doctor kept his wife prisoner in a back bedroom where he poisoned her by degrees, some said with the connivance of his teenage daughters. That last murderer was the creepiest: a doctor who brought death, not healing. Here true crime conformed to the golden principle of detective fiction: that guilt lies with the least likely suspect.
By my eighth birthday I had begun reading the Agatha Christie novels that lay piled on our bookshelves. Books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Crooked House introduced me to the intellectual pleasure of puzzle-solving. While they offered no scope for the imaginative identification I found in, say, the novels of Arthur Ransome, picturing myself as an Amazon in a red-knitted cap, I read whodunnits as if entranced. The racism and classism of Christie's fiction washed over me unnoticed. I read as if addicted, helpless before the urge to know what happened next. It was a valuable early lesson in the absolute supremacy of story.
My father told me about a perfect murder. When he was a young magistrate in an outstation town, a villager was brought before him. Muttuhami had fallen out with his neighbour over a breadfruit tree. The tree grew on Muttuhami's land, but some of its branches overhung the neighbour's property. Muttuhami had complained to the village headman that his neighbour was helping himself to the fruit that grew on these branches. The headman, who was related by marriage to the other man, sent Muttuhami away with a flea in his ear.
Shortly afterwards Muttuhami and his wife went to stay with her parents, who lived forty miles away. Two days later their neighbour, his wife and their three children were found dead in their hut. Autopsies showed the cause of the deaths to be strychnine poisoning. The family had ingested the poison with their evening meal of rice and lentils, and had died in agony. A clay cooking pot still contained a little lentil curry, which was analysed and proved to contain traces of rat poison.
The story of the dead man's quarrel with Muttuhami came out and the police hauled him in as their prime suspect. But on the evening in question, Muttuhami, his father-in-law and several other men had played cards late into the night. One of the card-players was a retired constable, who could vouch that Muttuhami had never left the game. Since the poison had been introduced into a meal prepared forty miles away, his alibi was unshakeable. Yet the inspector in charge of the investigation was sure that Muttuhami was his man. Guilty as sin, he told my father. But how had the murderer done it?
In the presence of a conundrum the relentless application of logic is required. Muttuhami's victims had been murdered in their hut; therefore he must have had access to the premises. It was necessary to visit the scene of the crime. The inspector and his sergeant rode out to the village. The headman, a pot-bellied scoundrel who reeked of toddy, led them to the hut where the bodies had been found. It stood in a tiny little plot crammed with pineapples, jak fruit, a betel vine, a patch of yams where someone had left a hoe driven into the red soil. The headman pointed out the breadfruit tree that was the origin of the quarrel; and there, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, Muttuhami's hut could be glimpsed through a thicket of plantain trees.
There was little to see in the single cramped room where the family had died. The inspector noted a square of mirror on one wall, and a calendar, years out of date, advertising Reckitt's Blue. A tin trunk contained clothing. There were sleeping mats rolled up neatly. An enamelled basin, five clay cooking pots, a grinding stone, a wooden rice chest, an ancient Huntley & Palmer's biscuit tin half full of flour. The inspector noted that the floor in the hut was intact. Where theft was the motive for murder, the assailants would always dig up the floor in search of buried valuables.
The air was foul with the reek of rancid coconut oil. The headman had already stepped out onto the verandah and was chatting with the sergeant. The inspector was about to join them, the taste of failure sour on his tongue, when something made him scan the room one last time. And suddenly he saw - everything. There were five cooking pots in that hut.
Most people would have missed the significance of that trivial fact, said my father. But the inspector knew that in a poor village home, where every cent is scraped together and possessions are scant, five pots is a luxury. The dead family would have lived on rice eaten with a little curry, some chillies and onion. What were they doing with five pots? The inspector knew the answer. Proof was another matter. He had all the pots taken away and analysed. Two of them, noticeably less blackened from smoke than the others, were found to be impregnated with rat poison. They were also covered with Muttuhami's fingerprints.
The police charged Muttuhami. He was brought before my father and confronted with the evidence. For thirty seconds his eyes ran this way and that. But then he smiled. They were probably his very own pots, he said, bold as brass. Only a few days before he left the village, his wife had complained of finding rat droppings in their hut. So he had asked her to cook a little rice, which he had divided between two pots, having swilled rat poison around them. In the morning the rice was gone. He had meant to throw away the contaminated pots, but Muttuhami shrugged. They must have been forgotten, kicked into a dark corner and left there.
My father said he felt nothing but admiration for the man. Under other circumstances Muttuhami would have made a great artist. His understanding of human nature, his insight into the workings of the mind. He knew very well that his enemy would be unable to resist that empty hut standing there like an invitation. And what would he have found inside? Why, two cooking pots in mint condition, overlooked in the commotion of leaving. The man must have been laughing, savouring his triumph when he took that booty home to his wife. They were probably still congratulating themselves when they squatted down to eat that evening. "And Muttuhami, forty miles away on the other side of the jungle, no doubt he was smiling too," said my father.
Courtesy of Random House, Inc.
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