Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case

Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case is an unusual work–a mystery novel in which the murder is hardly the most important puzzle in the book. Rather, the real mystery here is the protagonist, Sam Obeysekere.

Set in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) The Hamilton Case tells the story of Obeysekere, who was born to wealth but who is destined to watch as Pater unburdens himself of his inheritance while Mater spends the better part of her time smoking, drinking, and pursuing lovers. Sam doesn’t find solace in his relationship with his younger sister Claudia, whom he views as weak and inconsequential. At prep school, he meets his arch-nemesis, the popular Donald Jayasinghe. Jaya immediately pegs Sam as a lackey.

Your people were Buddhist under our kings, Catholic under the Portuguese, Reformists under the Dutch, Anglicans under the English. You can’t help yourself can you? Obey by name, Obey by nature.

The name sticks, and, one later finds, for good reason.

By the time Sam comes of age, all that is left of his family’s grandeur is a dilapidated estate up-country, in Lokugama. He rents a house in the capital of Colombo and takes up a position as a public prosecutor. He carefully selects a wealthy wife whose parents live conveniently far, and proceeds to amass wealth of the kind he had grown up with. When Mater has squandered all that is left of her money, Sam offers her only one option: Lokugama, where she lives in seclusion for the rest of her life and where she serendipitiously uncovers one of Sam’s darkest secrets.

Then a tea grower named Angus Hamilton is murdered on his way back to his estate. The investigator initially suspects a pair of coolies. But, priding himself on his analytical methods, Sam points to someone else, a British subject. Although he’s warned about this, Sam feels that the British love of ‘fair play’ would dictate that if one of their own has committed murder, he should pay for it, even if the sentence is handed down by a ‘native court.’ Sam moves on, but his miscalculation in the Hamilton Case essentially determines the course of his life. He retains his faith in all things British and is disingaged from the turmoil that arises as Ceylon changes around him. He seems hardly affected by the exceptional times he lives in, except, perhaps in the way of someone who’s mourning the good old days. Even his relationship with his son comes too late in the novel to make a real change.

I noticed that a couple of reviews have referred to Obeysekere as “more British than the British.” But there’s more to it than that. Obeysekere hasn’t just inherited a different way of doing business. He’s also inherited the colonial mindset, often looking down on his compatriots. Even though he himself is the victim of racist invectives (for instance, by Miss Vandestraaten, his English teacher) and even though he’s essentially passed for a position because he’s Sinhalese rather than British, Obey practices the same racism toward his compatriots. In one particularly astounding paragraph, he refers to one of his foes as a “monkey.” He disapproves of the independence movement, and is opposed to even the most basic democratic advances.

The British made a fatal error when they brought in universal suffrage. It might be plausible in Europe, but here, with our ignorant masses, what can it lead to but the disasters we’ve seen since independence?

When I started The Hamilton Case I had high hopes I could finally find a novel that deals with the colonial issue rather than skirt it, but I don’t think this one is it. De Kretser’s book is beautifully written, at times wonderfully subversive. (I loved her skewering of the current madness for the exotic novel.) But to this reader Sam Obeysekere remains as mysterious at the end as he was at the beginning.