As The Strangler Vine opens, William Avery is a typical young soldier in 1830’s colonial India: deep in debt, disdainful of Indian “barbarity,” stalled in his career and desperate to make it back to Devonshire before the cholera picks him off. His prospects change drastically when British East India Company officers give him a mission: He will accompany Special Inquiry Agent Jeremiah Blake on a 700-mile journey into the heart of India to find missing poet Xavier Mountstuart.
Avery idolizes Mountstuart, a Byronic figure who disappeared while researching a long poem on the murderous Thuggee cult. But he doesn’t exactly hit it off with his traveling companion. Blake is an enigmatic political operative and linguistic genius who has spent years “[living] as much as he could as a native.” He’s unimpressed by Avery’s naive faith in the benevolence of British rule. And as the pair journey further into the countryside, they seem to have no leads. The Company members they encounter are mysteriously tight-lipped about Mountstuart’s fate. Did the writer fall victim to Thuggee ritual murder—or is there more to the story?
The Strangler Vine immerses the reader in an India of jungles, bandit attacks, tiger hunts and Rajahs’ opulent courts, but it’s also a meticulously researched portrait of an era. First-time novelist M.J. Carter depicts a cultural climate in which colonizers are increasingly contemptuous and hostile toward a civilization they once admired. A real historical figure even appears: Major William Sleeman, who led a brutal campaign to repress the Thuggee menace (and, in doing so, legitimate British power). This suspenseful tale of intrigue skillfully portrays Avery’s dawning realization that “everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.”