The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

24 March, 2014

Strangler Vine

Set in early 19th century, just before the coronation of Queen Victoria and the establishment of the British Raj, when the British East India Company was wealthy, autonomous and with its own private army, M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine charts new territory in the genre of literary historical crime and has been recently longlisted for the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. And there’s no one better to do it than Carter, who has also written biographies of Anthony Blunt and Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V and Tsar Nicholas II, although this is her first foray into fiction.

The Strangler Vine uses the tried and tested setting of a team of two ill-suited protagonists who are sent off into the wilds of India to search for a missing celebrity author. Ensign William Avery, only six months in India and already heavily in debt, has orders to to deliver a message to Jeremiah Blake, a decommissioned Captain of the East India Company who is rumoured to have gone native. He encounters a man dressed in rags with an attitude problem and returns defeated to the Company headquarters hoping never to see the wretched man again. But he is soon sent on a dangerous mission with Blake to hunt down Xavier Mountstuart who has gone missing in the Moffusil region while researching the Thuggee culture for his next literary masterpiece. As Avery begins his journey with reluctance and a sense of doom, it soon becomes clear that Blake is not what he seems and that his brooding countenance hides a wealth of skills and secrets. What will they find on the way? And is Mountstuart still alive?

The novel gives a fascinating insight into Colonial India on the cusp of rebellion just when once mutual respect and acceptance gives way to colonial bigotry and oppression which will culminate in resistance and open rebellion. Carter draws on a part of history often overlooked by the exuberance and pomp of the British Raj which follows it. Both Avery, just off the boat and inexperienced, and Blake, experienced, jaded and who has spent most of his life in India, play off each other eventually succumbing to the inevitable reliance and trust which will save their lives. Mountstuart is the archetypal gentleman explorer and spy who is clever with languages and has the right wealth and cultivation to see him through any horrendous escapade.

The Strangler Vine was a highly enjoyable reading experience with a wealth of history, mystery and thrills. It galloped along at speed and although the quaint spelling of Colonial words such as ‘jangal’ instead of jungle took some getting used to, it didn’t bother me much and made me aware of the extent of research Carter must have buried herself in to get the authenticity and feel of the novel spot on. And yet Carter wears her historical research lightly, the detail folded seamlessly in with the plot. The plot is king here, just as it should be.

There is also no whitewashing of events either. The East India Company is shown as a mercenary, greedy business out to wring as much wealth as it can from India and this is shown through Blake’s disillusion and the gradual loss of Avery’s innocence. Governments are the same everywhere and in any period of history and this is what makes fascinating reading. The good guys don’t always win and the bad guys often get away with it. It’s a hard lesson but history is full of it.

This is just the kind of book I like, clever, erudite and with a nice glossary at the back. It has had some incredible reviews and reminded me a lot of Jason Goodwin’s Ottoman mysteries beginning with The Janissary Tree. I want to know more about Avery and Blake and we are in for a treat because The Strangler Vine is the first in a series of mysteries featuring the unlikely pair soon to be followed by The Infidel Stain. Can’t wait!

Thank you very much to Penguin who kindly sent me a copy of the book to review.

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