THE HAMILTON CASE

By Michelle de Kretser. Little, Brown. 307 pp. $24.95

Michelle de Kretser's ambitious, gracefully composed second novel might best be described as an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Its title and opening section -- a first-person reminiscence by its central character, a public prosecutor in the former British Indian colony of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka -- prompt readers to expect a straight expository work of detection, in the great and elegant British tradition of Willkie Collins, Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Our narrator, one Sam (ne Stanley Alban Marriott) Obeysekere is indeed a diehard fan of the mystery genre, with an emphasis on "the sublime Mrs. Christie" and her serene-yet-bloody sorties into well-born British intrigue. Sam grew up in the Ceylonese capital of Colombo as the son of a high-living native-born estate holder of "iconic largesse," who managed to work the British takeover of the island nation into a mammoth personal land grab. The sight of his father whipping the son of a favored overseer instilled in young Sam a reverence for the cold and impersonal authority of British justice. Even though the boy was being punished unfairly, Sam intuited the workings of a grander design: "It was essential to the harmonious functioning of our little community that the boy paid publicly for his crime [of stealing coconuts] in spite of his privileged standing on the estate." Here was the germination of Sam's adult career as a prosecutor, which though "a stern and thankless calling" nevertheless "has a grandeur that the sentimentality of defense can never hope to rival."

This paternalistic self-confidence, together with his passion for "the cold brilliance" of British murderers in fact and fiction, produces Sam's big break in the Ceylonese legal world, after Angus Hamilton, a British overseer of a colonial tea plantation, is brutally murdered while riding his horse home late one evening. Suspicion immediately falls on a pair of Tamil workers caught trying to pawn the victim's watch, but Sam applies the tried-and-true principles of the Christie yarn to the case. He directs the King's Advocate who is handling the investigation to a femme fatale, the wife of the victim's best friend, another British colonial hand named Gordon Taylor -- a bit of advice that propels Taylor's swift prosecution, conviction and suicide in prison.

Don't worry: This is not giving away any key element of the plot of de Kretser's novel, for The Hamilton Case is really about something far more absorbing than the tidy and classic plot twists of a British murder mystery. Its real subject is the mystery of Sam's own thwarted life and career -- "a relentless whisper of frustrated endeavor" that haunts him well past the local 15 minutes of fame he earns in consulting on the prosecution of Gordon Taylor and into the waning of British rule in the mid-20th century, when the new Ceylon has even less use for a loyal colonial native son. We learn, after the narrative shifts out of Sam's voice -- the novel's initial false start is courtesy of an unfinished manuscript of Sam's memoirs -- that his ambitions to move up the civil service ranks in colonial Ceylon come gradually to naught. As his family's fortune continues to dwindle, and he ponders a loveless marriage into a moneyed family, he thinks of his life as "a thing of cardboard and paint, and a gale raged offstage, mocking him with losses."

He has no idea. Ever drawn to things gothic and British, he sets up housekeeping with his wife in a rambling, garishly yellow seaside estate once owned by Allenby, a 19th-century English coffee baron who hanged himself after a leaf blight. The Dutch family who then came into the mansion met with a similarly lurid fate, and the place is now rumored to be haunted. His wife, Leela -- who meets her connubial marital duties by all too literally lying back and thinking of England, i.e., reciting the names of the heroines of her beloved Walter Scott historical romances -- suffers a traumatic miscarriage and becomes ever more tormented by the notion that the spirit of her dead daughter inhabits the Allenby house. His sister, Claudia, marries a former schoolmate of Sam's who has now reinvented himself, in most unlikely fashion as a fire-breathing anti-Tamil and anti-colonialist demagogue, and meets a still crueler fate.

As his reversals of fortune multiply, Sam becomes ever more resolute in his cold detachment from the all too implacable -- and, far from coincidentally, largely female -- suffering that surrounds him. He calmly waits out the inevitable exhaustion of his father's estate at the hands of his spendthrift mother, Maud, who has always uneasily co-existed with her distinguished son in a state of rigid mutual resentment, so that he can dispatch her to live alone in the family's final remaining cottage, in an isolated jungle settlement called Lokugama. There, as Sam all too confidently reckons, the once beautiful and urbane bon vivant goes slowly mad -- but not before she intuits a terrible secret gnawing away at the very core of the Obeysekere clan's fast-decaying fortunes.

To say more about that would truly be giving away far too much of Michelle de Kretser's clear-eyed, artfully constructed fable about the most comforting, and hence cruelest, myths of a single man's long and dreadfully empty life. 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. In one of his early, characteristically deluded moments of patrician serenity Sam asks, "Who isn't drawn to what he pities?" The signal accomplishment of de Kretser's hypnotic, lush and calmly observant novel is that we feel this same sentiment on Sam's own behalf, even after we learn in the story of his life how deeply suspect it must be. That is the final, remarkable mystery that endlessly enlivens The Hamilton Case. *

Chris Lehmann (lehmannc@washpost.com) is deputy editor of Book World.