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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Strangler Vine by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 400 pages, $16 (c2014, US paperback ed. 2016)

Before the days of the Raj, British rule in India in the 1700s and 1800s wasn’t so much politics as economics. The East India Company was a private company with quasi-governmental powers. It made great profits from the various Indian provinces it subjugated, including by forcing farmers to grow the opium it needed to balance its trade deficit with China. It is this background that M. J. Carter uses for her debut crime novel, “The Strangler Vine,” set in 1837 India.

Ensign William Avery is a callow fellow in his 20s who joined “The Company” because his prospects in England were poor. On the verge of bankruptcy because of gambling debts, trapped in limbo in Calcutta because a permanent assignment to an army unit has not come through, and miserable because his best friend has been murdered, Avery is a sorry soul. He abhors an assignment to deliver a message to the notorious Jeremiah Blake, a former Company captain who has gone native. Blake is every bit as unimpressive as his lowly surroundings in Calcutta’s Blacktown neighborhood would suggest, Avery thinks. Nevertheless, the message produces a further assignment to accompany Blake on a mission.

At the point Avery meets him, Blake has resigned his army commission, has been mourning the loss of his wife, and has been fighting some malady, probably malaria, when the Company’s commission pulls him from his lethargy. Avery is suddenly promoted to lieutenant and assigned to accompany Blake to find the famous writer and poet Xavier Mountstuart, who has been missing for a few months during an expedition to learn about the vicious Thugees. Mountstuart’s books — gossipy, irritating, romantic, and disrespectful of The Company and Calcutta society especially — are what inspired Avery to travel to India when England became unsustainable. Moreover, Mountstuart and Blake have some sort of mysterious history together.

Not so much mystery as travelogue, Carter’s book paints an exotic and exciting portrait of India. Although her story is from the viewpoint of British folk in the steamy, teeming cities and insect-laden, encroaching “jangal,” and not especially of the indigenous people, she creates a sympathetic feeling for the indignities the Indians suffered.

Carter incorporates real people and history in the course of her book. The Company indeed had a Thugee Bureau intent on eliminating the Kali-worshipping clan of thieves and murderers. In their own fictional way, Avery and Blake are caught up in it as they search for Mountstuart.

On the front cover of my copy of “The Strangler Vine” appear the words, “A Blake and Avery Adventure.” Although there is a murder, an assassination attempt, and several deaths, this is an adventure first and foremost, and a grand one at that!

This book is a 2016 finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

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