Book Review: The Hamilton Case

I am a great lover of mystery novels, and when I received this gem for Christmas I was anticipating the usual suspenseful crime drama loosely centered around a poorly developed yet vaguely likable protagonist. I wasn’t sure of the plot when I opened it up, only that it took place in British occupied Sri Lanka around 1900, involving the murder of a tea plantation master. What I was not expecting was it to open with the detailed life of one Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere, told in the first person and with much pomp and circumstance. As a lawyer, he scrutinizes the case as a prosecutor in a highly polished and extravagant narrative short on plot points and long in detail, but it’s ambiguous just how biased the “objective” case really is, once you learn more of his character. That introduces the reader to the self-important man who would eventually solve The Hamilton Case and has now set out to tell the tale. Sounds straight forward, but just when we get to know this man his tale ends abruptly with a simple author’s note: that the whole time you were actually reading notes found after his death. Who is telling the story then? The book switches perspectives suddenly and objectively other characters in bits and pieces, slowly building, adding tidbits of how our protagonist solves the case. Puzzled by questions as tantalizing as “What monstrous calculation lay behind the woman’s decision to condemn her husband when Earnshaw had demolished the case against him?” we cannot help but wonder about the case, but it is not the focus of this book.

In fact, I was intensely surprised by how little the namesake of this book occupies the storyline. The case itself is nearly unimportant except as a defining moment in the life of the protagonist, a testament to how an incredibly important event in one person’s life can be utterly unimportant to others. The tale is mainly the richly embellished lives of the main character and his family and friends, none of which are particularly likable but all of which are intriguing and strange. The book is rife with seemingly inconsequential imagery, and I even though the case itself was not in the least being developed in many long intervals, it was so interesting to read I didn’t even mind. Here is a particularly neat quote detailing one character’s descent into madness:

“…things slipped out of their elements. A human face might peer at her from the chipped brickwork of a wall. Mosses grew eyes and moved. Tiny fish, vivid as gems, glowed briefly among ferns. Four headless mandarins in funeral kimonos paraded before her, on a log where a row of cormorants had stood with wings stretched wide as they pecked lice from their pinions. Once, in the unambiguous glare of noon, a figure walked less than six feet ahead of her on the road. It was neither male nor female, and its skin was a luminous coppery blue.”

What’s interesting is that since you are essentially in each character’s head, it is nearly impossible to be objective about what is really going on, since all is seemingly real and yet most cannot be, as in the passage above. What is not immediately obvious is that all events are tainted by those telling the story, leaving you wondering about the facts involved in the case  itself.  And suddenly,  years after the case has been tried and put to rest, everyone’s lives are falling apart and The Hamilton Case is an enigma once again, as more facts overlooked by our protagonist are revealed by other side characters, who come to the forefront of the narrative.  But now, all facts seem tainted even if no one as anything to gain, and at the end you’re no longer satisfied with the simple “whodunnit” question that is answered. Who did was not important, only to what degree the case had ruined the lives of those involved. The scope of the story touches on questions of love and loneliness, forgiveness and death, with poignant and heart-aching detail. I was left with the sentiment that no matter how much glamor and beauty we gloss over life, the harsh realities are stark and frightening up close. So ends the tale of the Hamilton Case.

I should also say that if you enjoyed The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, the narrative is similar and the imagery just as imaginative and pleasing to read. If you want something with good vocabulary, this is also a good pick. However, if you want a twisting plot-heavy mystery novel, this is not my first choice. That being said it was an amazing book, the sort where you need to read it again, at least once. There is so much I could say about this book, and I understand now how the New York Times could write a four page book review about it. An enjoyable read, start to finish.

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