The Strangler Vine, by M. J. Carter, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 384 pages, release date 31 March, 2015
The Strangler Vine was published at the end of March, so this review comes a bit late, but I nonetheless wanted to give this book the praise it deserves. The Strangler Vine is an historical mystery that transcends its genre, offering insight into the period in which its set: late 1830s India.
India at this time was under the rule of the East India Company, a privately owned business that also served as government. The Company had its own army; it made and enforced laws across the territory it held. This was a time when, with the right amount of money, one could purchase an officer’s position in the British Army. Joining the East India Company’s army didn’t necessarily carry a price, but it helped to have the right connections. Many second (or third or fourth) sons chose to seek their fortunes in India, since family resources were traditionally devoted to ensuring the success of the eldest son.
The Strangler Vine‘s narrator, William Avory, is one such younger son. He’s arrived in India, but has not yet been assigned to a regiment and is running up debts, both for the necessities of daily life and because of his tendency to participate in, and then lose, card games. Avory is given a shot at redemption. He’s been ordered to accompany a renegade ex-officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a hunt for a missing poet/novelist, whose recent roman a clef has the British community in Calcutta in an uproar. The East India Company would like to return this writer to England before he can make any more trouble for them.
Blake is an odd character: a superb linguist and misanthrope with the rational powers of Sherlock Holmes, all embodied within a man who has abandoned much of British culture and adopted local practices. Avory, an idealist who’s bought the claims that the East India Company is in India for the Indians’ own good, has no idea how to deal with this brilliant, taciturn, and uncivilized man.
As Blake and Avory pursue their mission they encounter more mysteries than just the author’s disappearance. The author was reportedly researching a long, narrative poem focusing on the Thuggee band, a group said to kill in the name of Kali, then to rob their victims afterward. There are questions about the methods used to identify, prosecute, and punish Thugs. There are also questions about whether there are really any Thugs at all. One local ruler, said to harbor Thugs, faces an attempted assassination.
One can read this mystery novel as a mystery—but it also provides a fascinating look into the ethos of British colonial culture and its impacts upon the lives of the colonized. Several of the novel’s central characters are historical figures, and Carter provides useful biographical sketches of them in an afterword. Carter’s prose is engaging to read, and it’s made even more engaging by her choice of topic and period detail.
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