The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter is the 1st Blake and Avery Mystery, set in the untamed wilds of nineteenth-century colonial India. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for “Best Novel.”
“You’re a better man than, I, Gunga Din.”
That’s one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, from the movie Gunga Din, in which three movie stars—er, British soldiers—take on the Thuggee cult. The first time I watched Gunga Din, I was inspired to look up the Thuggee cult, and was surprised to learn it was a real thing and not a Hollywood invention.
And, of course, “Gunga Din” is also a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which concludes that the title character is superior to the British officers to whom he’s given his life.
It was good to be reminded of that as I read The Strangler Vine.
The mystery is set in 1839, in India, in a time when the forces of the East India Company were supposedly still fighting the forces of the Thuggee. Yet, nothing is at it seems in this book, nominated for an Edgar Award.
Not the narrator, William Avery, who at first seems only a naïve-but-well-meaning British soldier, but possesses more courage and intelligence than even he gives himself credit for. Our dubious hero is sent on what could be a futile quest into India’s interior to investigate the disappearance of Xaviar Mountstuart, a renowned British writer. Avery reluctantly agrees, not the least bit because Mountstuart is one of his literary heroes.
Avery’s guide and partner on this mission is Jeremiah Blake, who has gone native, as they say, and obviously has a much different view of India than the conventional British one. In Blake, one could see echoes of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, though Kim’s adventures took place many years later.
Together, Avery and Blake set out to uncover a truth that is hidden under several layers, to the point where even some of their suspects are unaware of the whole picture. In this journey to the heart of the East India Company’s darkness, Avery learns of the British treatment of natives in the areas that the Company runs, which is not always as it seems, and spends time at the court of one of the Indian rulers who’s been propped up by the company and has a more clear-eyed view of the Company’s motives.
Then there is the Thuggee cult. Or is there?
If the reader is expecting a traditional mystery in which the detectives gather clues, this is not that book. Clues do accumulate in the course of Avery’s travels, but they’re not always obvious (at least to him), and they don’t fall into any pattern—at least until the full deception is revealed at the end. Blake, with his ability to pass for a native, his disguises, and his gift for languages, is also going to remind many of Sherlock Holmes, though Blake’s reasons for cynicism are far different than the asexual detective’s.
Once the full scope of the deception is revealed—uncovering it nearly costs Avery and Blake their lives—Avery finally learns what Blake has been trying to show him all along about the Company’s presence in India. Unfortunately, Avery’s first allegiance is to the British Empire. Blake, however, sees what the Company’s actions will cost them and India down the line. It’s his tragedy to be the Cassandra no one will believe until it’s too late.
It’s a fascinating, immersive book in a time period and a setting that has long been lost to history, especially in regards to the Thuggee cult. As I was reading, I wondered why this story would be told from the British point of view, as I’d hoped to hear from those who’d been historically oppressed and whose viewpoints are often forgotten.
However, this book is about how the people of the Company deceived themselves, and, in the end, it’s an indictment of the Company’s time in India.
The end of the book hints at trouble ahead for Avery, the Company, and perhaps for Blake, who’s more out of place than ever—a man too British to be Indian, and too Indian to be British.
I will look for more from M.J. Carter, as this is a wonderful debut.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog at Wired and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.