The Strangler Vine

Written by M.J. Carter

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.


The Strangler Vine
Penguin
RRP: £8.99
Released: September 25th, 2014
Pbk

Calcutta 1837: India is under the stranglehold of the East India Company, “a mechanism for the domination of one people by another for the latter’s enrichment” according to one of the Company’s subversive agents. Much of that enrichment derived from the opium trade where the profits were equalled only by the extent of bribery and corruption that maintained dominance.

Into this maelstrom young Ensign Avery, fresh from Devonshire, is thrown, to be despatched shortly as some kind of escort to the dubious agent, Jeremiah Blake, their orders being to locate a Scottish poet who has disappeared in the jungle hundreds of miles away. From the start Avery has doubts concerning their stated goal, suspecting that Blake is party to some hidden agenda. The youngster is deeply resentful of the situation; he hates India: the dirt and poverty, the discomforts of upcountry travel where the squalor of native huts is only marginally preferable to sleeping in a tent on the ground at the mercy of wild animals and wilder men. Thugs haunt the roads, its devotees strangling travellers to offer their victims as sacrifice to the dread god, Kali.

New worlds open to Avery. From the starched discipline of Calcutta’s cantonments, by way of the Grand Truck Road, the jungle, monsoon rains and saddle sores, he comes to the outstations where English officers have assumed sovereign powers, counterpart to those of the native princes, still precariously independent, surrounded by murderous intrigue. Increasingly, in Company Mess and servants’ quarters, in harem and bazaar, Avery and Blake pick up faint clues concerning the fate of the mystery poet. They are stalked and sometimes attacked by unseen and unsuspected enemies, unsuspected because nothing and no one are as they seem. Avery grows up. From the callow homesick youth hating India, loathing Blake, he starts to emerge a responsible intelligent fellow, an excellent shot – and a tiger when it comes to hand-to-hand fighting.

Hyped as a rip-roaring yarn The Strangler Vine is more than that. There are shades of Kipling, lacking his colour and style, but also his jingoism for Carter exposes a kind of treachery that would have shocked Victorian readers to the core. However she has done the homework and cites her sources, so taking all on trust it is no surprise to be reminded that twenty years after Avery’s fictitious adventure (where he heard first rumours of “a breaking machine”) the Indian Mutiny occurred, was viciously suppressed and the East India Company dissolved.

 

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