The Strangler Vine: A Novel, by M. J. Carter
This is one of a long parade of books that I wanted to like but ended up disappointing me somehow. That’s a category that would fill a library all its own. I like mysteries; I am interested in the time period in India; I read my share of Kipling; and sat agog with movies like Gunga Din, Kim (the book I’m named after), and even Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie and The Little Princess. I’m primed for this kind of book. I’m the freaking market. Still, it wasn’t all I hoped for.
The book is set in India near the tail end of the British East India Company in the 1830s. For anyone interested, the East India Company is the object lesson from history of why running a government like a company is a bad idea. The East India Company was allowed to form an army for management of this vast chunk of the British Empire so that the company could maintain its very profitable business of growing opium for sale to the Chinese while still exporting cotton for England’s mills and tea for her tables. William Avery is a lieutenant in this ersatz army and is given an assignment through the political arm of the company that could improve his career.
He is assigned to find Xavier Mountstuart, who has gone missing. Mountstuart, along with being a renowned expert on India is also a prolific writer, and Avery has read most of that output. Avery is teamed with Jeremiah Blake, who is somewhat famous as a skilled linguist and a bit infamous for his close relationship with an Indian woman. These two and their retinue must travel through territory in which the Thuggee cult of Kali-worshippers have been strangling travelers with great abandon.
This is where the book tends to drag and weaken. Blake is meant to be someone with the keen observation skills of a Sherlock Holmes but he’s sullen, withdrawn, and downright boring through much of the middle of the book. I suppose this is meant to be tension between the two main characters but it goes on way too long.
The book begins to investigate the nature of the Thugs and the officers assigned to eliminate them. These are actual historical characters and there’s much more debate even today about whether the Thugs were as vast a criminal enterprise as the British claimed or whether they were primarily an invention or fear-induced phantom. Carter, a journalist before he began writing books, has a strong opinion and much of that would serve as a spoiler here.
Near the end of the book the relationship between Avery and Blake begins to gel a bit but it’s a hard ride to get there. I might … MIGHT … pick up another book in the series just to find out what happens to the two but I will be scanning the reviews pretty carefully before I do.