For anyone yet to discover the superb The Strangler Vine: The Blake and Avery Mystery Series (Book 1)
by M. J. Carter, this really is one of the best pieces of India based fiction we’ve read in a long time. Historian M. J Carter (married to another famous writer John Lanchester) has made her first foray into fiction with this superbly researched and characterised mystery based on the legendary Thugee Cult. Set in the Era of the East India Company, the book explores 19th century India through a wryly colonial perspective as a young lieutenant, William Avery, is forced to head deeply into the wilds in search of a famous British writer Xavier Mountstuart who has vanished.
Avery is accompanied by Jeremiah Blake, Special Inquiry Agent and something of an Indiana Jones by nature. Fluent in numerous local languages, Blake’s evident love for the country and its people serve as a foil for Avery’s own limited experience. With two Indian aides, they set out from Calcutta to Dura, meeting on the way a supposed British hero, Major Sleeman, commonly credited with being the suppressor of Thuggism but, as the narrative brilliantly exposes, who may equally have been the creator of an Orientalist myth for the purposes of securing East India Company interests in the region.
Without spoiling the plot, I can reveal that what happens next involves superbly described period detail, finely crafted period detail of a Rajah’s court, hunting cheetahs on the back of wild elephants, and the “strangler vines” of the title, creepers which choke the trees until killer and victim are so entangled they are indistinguishable. This is a book which reads with the pace of the best detective novels, and really does showcase the talents of a prodigiously talented novelist. By turns gripping and evocative of the period, the book also succeeds in creating two superbly memorable characters in Avery and Blake who, as the recent release of The Infidel Stain: The Blake and Avery Mystery Series (Book 2) tells us are set to be one of the great contemporary crime fighting partnerships.
“The Strangler Vine,” which was long listed for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is more than a simple detective novel, however. Like the best historical fiction it leaves one wiser about the period which it evokes, in this case describing peasants starving in famine, violent executions for petty crimes and the brutal racism and classism of the caste system in a way which never once feels proselyting. Mainly it’s just a brilliant read, pure pleasure from start to finish.