I love a good historical mystery and when this one was recommended to me recently (thank you, Pam!) I remembered that I already had a copy on my Kindle and couldn’t leave it to languish there any longer. Having read it, I wish I’d found time for it earlier – it’s an excellent book – but on the positive side, there are now two more in the series which I can read sooner rather than later.
The Strangler Vine is set in India in 1837, when large areas of the country were ruled by the British East India Company. Our narrator is William Avery, a young officer with the Company’s army. Originally from Devon, he has grown up reading the work of Xavier Mountstuart, a fictional author and poet whose writings sound similar to Rudyard Kipling’s and which have given him a romanticised view of India. Having spent nine months in Calcutta, however, he is starting to feel disillusioned with “the monstrous climate, the casual barbarities of the native population and the stiff unfriendliness of the European society”.
Disappointed that he still hasn’t been summoned to join his cavalry regiment in North Bengal, Avery is growing frustrated and bored – until the day he is asked to accompany an older officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a special mission. It seems that his literary hero, Mountstuart, has gone missing while carrying out research for a new poem and Avery and Blake have been given the task of finding him.
The Strangler Vine is a wonderful, fascinating novel; there are so many things I enjoyed about it that I’m not sure where to start! First of all, there’s the relationship between the two main characters, Avery and Blake, who, like all good mystery-solving duos, are two very different people who complement each other perfectly. Young, naïve and loyal to the Company, Avery is more instantly likeable and although he can be slow to pick up on clues, the fact that he never seems to know any more than the reader does makes him the perfect character to guide us through the novel. There’s a sense that where Indian culture, politics and history are concerned, Avery is learning as he goes along, which means background information tends to be given in large chunks rather than being lightly woven into the story. This style won’t appeal to every reader, but I found it all so interesting that it didn’t bother me.
Jeremiah Blake is a more unusual and intriguing character; although he still has connections to the East India Company, he no longer actively works for them – his knowledge of Indian languages and marriage to an Indian woman have aroused the distrust of the other officers who consider him to have ‘gone native’. His attitude towards Avery is abrupt, rude and dismissive and because we only see him through Avery’s eyes, he is a complete enigma at first. Eventually his true character starts to be revealed, but I was still left with the feeling that we have more to discover about Blake.
The mystery element of the novel is quite complex and what seems to Avery at first to be a straightforward search for a missing man soon develops into something with much deeper implications. It all revolves around the cult of Thuggee – organised gangs of thieves and murderers who worship the Goddess Kali and who are causing widespread fear and panic amongst the British in India. Mountstuart is thought to have been researching the Thugs at the time of his disappearance and so Avery and Blake, following his trail, also become drawn into the mystery and controversy surrounding the cult.
I loved The Strangler Vine; apart from the aspects of the novel I’ve already mentioned, I also really liked MJ Carter’s writing; it’s intelligent and detailed, she brings the setting vividly to life and, while I can hardly claim to be an expert on the India of the 1830s, if there were any inaccuracies or anachronisms I didn’t notice them. I can’t wait to join Avery and Blake for another adventure in The Printer’s Coffin.