The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

Oh wow –  an atmospheric historical mystery of 19th century East India Company in and around Calcutta.   It’s historically accurate (as far as I can tell) and  intelligently written with an intriguing plot line plus interesting characters.  What else could I want? – Also, it’s very nicely  narrated by Alex Wyndham.

strangler

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The Strangler Vine
by M.J. Carter
2014 / 384 pages
read by Alex Wyndham 10h 43m
rating:  A+/ 8.5  (historical literary crime -) 
(Book 1 in the Blake and Avery series)
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After a rather gripping prologue depicting the killing of someone by others using a stangling method.  Who has been done by whom?  Stay tuned.

In Chapter 1, Ensign WIlliam Avery, our probably quite reliable 1st person narrator,  really doesn’t want to be where he is in 1837,  assigned to the East India Company’s Calcutta base where he’s going into debt for gambling,  drinking too much and making no headway with the ladies.  He wants to go home to Devon,  England.  Alas – he’s ends up assigned by high command to go find Xavier Mountstart,  a famous British writer who has disappeared into the interior.  Mountstart is known for his scandalous adventure stories and has apparently gone into the wild to do research for his next novel.

Avery’s leader on this expedition is Jeremiah Blake, a seriously eccentric

220px-Strangler_fig_kerala

strangler fig of Indai

and angry man who was at some point an officer in the East India Company,  but who, for some reason,  went native and harbors a fair amount of resentment. “Going native” here means dressing like natives,  eating their food, speaking their languages – just taking on their culture as much as possible including disgust for the English imperialists.   Avery does not like the idea of “going native”  one bit and neither do most of the people associated with the East India Company in Calcutta.  Furthermore,  Blake seems not to like Avery at all.

Both Avery and Blake are familiar with Mountstart’s sensationalist writings and the rumors about him – how he’s gone native,  been ambushed by the “thuggee,” married a native,  etc.  But the East India Company wants the man back and that’s the job of Avery and Blake.  Avery is also to keep an eye on Blake – like a little spy.

Avery is told that his good friend Daniel has been found dead – strangled – for what?  Nobody could have much against him.

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Thuggees circa 1894

Carter treats us to lush descriptive passages about the journey north,  the rain and mangrove trees,  the other travelers, the small communities.  And there is definitely tension involved as between the animosity between Blake and Avery,  the Thuggees may be out.  Mir Aziz is always helpful.  Fear rules – fear is palpable –  fear of corruption, fear of sedition.  fear of the English, fear of  the Hindu.

Blake is no friendlier and essentially isolates him at first, so Avery has to use his Indian guide,  Mir Aziz,  for information and helpful hints.  Mir Aziz  is friendly but firm, helpful and protective. A distinct asset to the little group.  Avery’s assessment of the natives changes.

And then there are attacks … (shhh…. no spoilers here).

This is not exactly a thriller although from time to time there are thriller type sections.  It’s more of an adventure story –  looking for someone who is missing amongst killer gangs in the spooky forests and caves of India.

The main theme – metaphor if you will – is that just as the strangler vine chokes it’s victim,  so too the East India Company was choking India for their own profit.  And the Thuggees strangle their victims for Kali.   Lots of things are getting strangled here  – Avery is blinded to some suspicious people and events – more.

A lot of historical research went into this book – Carter’s primary resource was probably –
The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces
http://www.hotfreebooks.com/book/The-Tribes-and-Castes-of-the-Central-Provinces-of-India-Volume-IV-of-IV-Kumhar-Yemkala-R-V-Russell–13.html
But here are some more accessible resources:
East India Company in India
Thuggees,  (on NPR)  –  the Indian strangulation cult,
Major William Henry Sleeman,
Thug Feringhea

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