The Strangler Vine  by M.J. Carter (2014), Penguin

The Strangler Vine is the first novel in the Blake and Avery series (two currently published, with the third due out next month). Historical crime is huge at the moment, and this novel shows why.

We meet Ensign William Avery in Calcutta. The year is 1837 and he is working, rather unhappily, for the East India Company. Apart from the friendship of fellow Englishman Frank, Avery hates everything about India: the food, the weather, the people. He is in debt and in love with the beautiful Helen Larkbridge who is courted by far more senior and handsome men than himself. In short, he dreams of returning to England but with no prospects and no money to pay for the voyage, he is trapped.

Then Avery is made a strange offer. He is commanded to track down Xavier Mountstuart, a writer who has disappeared while researching his new book. His association with the Company, and the controversial nature of his writing, mean that the Company want him found, dead or alive, so they can settle the matter once and for all. His companion is to be Jeremiah Blake, a former Company man who fell in love with India and out of sorts with the British way of doing things. The two despise  one another on first sight, and it seems an impossible task, but Avery’s great hope is that Blake’s knowledge of local languages, and of the terrain, will keep them alive at least.

Their search takes them north into the Kali-worshipping Thugee territory, the home of infamous gangs of bandits who are said to befriend travellers before robbing and killing them. These legends are the reason Mountstuart went north before them, but nobody seems to have seen him, and those who have won’t speak of him. There is danger everywhere, on all sides, and Avery and Blake finally are forced to work together if they have any chance of saving themselves.

This book was shortlisted for several awards when it was published and I could immediately see why. I know nothing about nineteenth century India but Carter brings the sights and smells to life. I cannot say if it is perfectly authentic but it feels that way, and the contrast between Avery and his hatred of anything ‘foreign’, that ridiculous colonial viewpoint when in another country, and Blake’s love for his adopted land, is a great vehicle, highlighting the issues of colonialization. The story came first though and the action never stopped, the pair hurtling from one situation to the next, the eventual resolution satisfying. One for any fan of historical fiction, but particularly those who enjoy thrillers and adventure.



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