It’s 1837 and William Avery is a young Ensign in the East India Company, cooling his heels in Calcutta while he becomes increasingly frustrated at not being summoned to join the regiment in Bengal where all the action is. Instead, he’s being swindled by his servants and getting deeper into debt due to his fondness for card games. Then he’s assigned to accompany former Company agent Jeremiah Blake to track down a missing writer whose latest book threatens to expose secrets about not only Calcutta, but the Company itself. While they dislike each other quite heartily, it’s soon apparent that William and Jeremiah will have to trust each other if they’re to not only complete their mission, but make it back to Calcutta alive.
The Strangler Vine is a historical mystery that is rich in atmosphere. The descriptions of India are so gorgeously detailed that I felt as though I were there. The book doesn’t begin with a lot of action, but instead, slowly and steadily builds, letting you become acquainted with the characters and the customs of India. By the time the book finishes, young William and the older more jaded Jeremiah have survived beautiful but dangerous jungles, assassination attempts, possible attacks by the Thugees, and the increasing tensions between the English and Indians. I wasn’t that familiar with the history of English rule in India during this time so I found M.J. Carter’s detailed account fascinating. She describes India during the Victorian era in all it’s glory; including descriptive passages featuring the Indian hierarchy and politics, and the exquisite but at times deadly landscape. Adding another layer is her inclusion of actual key figures of the time. The characters were equally interesting, although I must admit I found William extremely annoying at first. Thankfully, Jeremiah who I loved, was a good, (or bad depending how you look at it!) influence. In a way this reminded me of a sleepier version of Indiana Jones. The ending of the book was a bit convoluted but ultimately satisfying and I’m looking forward to reading the next book featuring the odd couple of Avery and Blake.
One last note: I always consider a historical fiction novel a success if it’s made me want to research more about it’s subject, and that’s what happened with The Strangler Vine. I think it must be the librarian in me! I found myself looking up everything from the history of the East India Company to the political struggle between England and India’s royalty, to whether the Thugees really existed.