by Kung Fu Zu 11/6/17
A Blake and Avery novel, by M.J. Carter • Available for Kindle • The year is 1837. The Indian subcontinent is the location. The proximate setting is Calcutta on the Hooghly in Bengal, headquarters of the British East India Company sometimes known as John Company.
A young employ of the Company, Ensign William Avery, along with a company friend, Frank Macpherson, have been instructed to deliver an official message to a somewhat mysterious older man named Jeremiah Blake.
Initially, Avery was keen on delivering the message as Blake, unlike other Europeans, lived in Black Town. [Later George Town] By the time the message has been delivered, Avery has been insulted by Indian servants and a dark native looking fellow who turns out to be Blake.
What the reader and Avery do not yet know is that he and Blake are about to be ordered on a journey in search of the famous writer and old-Indian hand, Xavier Mountstuart, Avery’s idol. It is suggested he has disappeared while he is searching for the Thugees in order to gain personal knowledge about the criminal gangs for an epic poem which he wishes to write.
So begins M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine.
The main characters are Avery, a younger son of West Country gentry who has few prospects at home but is able to wrangle a position with the Company due to family connections, and Jeremiah Blake, a brilliant linguist who is an ex-Captain of the Company but for some unknown reason appears to have cut normal ties with it.
These two, along with three native companions, the most important of whom is Mir Aziz, set out on a seven hundred mile trip to Jubbulpore, a place which Mountstuart is likely to have visited after leaving Calcutta some months before. With Blake as its leader, the small company is to travel light and fast, forcing Avery to dump almost all of his few belonging before setting out.
The travelers encounter problems one might expect from moving across the subcontinent in a small group without military escort. Along the way, Avery asks every European he runs across for any word of Mountstuart, yet he learns nothing. At the same time, Avery notices Blake conversing with fakirs, native merchants and various other questionable characters, but giving no clue as to what he has learned.
The night before they are to arrive at Jubbulpore, the party is attacked by Bhil bandits and Avery is wounded while one of their native companions is killed. Due to Avery’s actions in this fight, Blake starts to warm to him, a little.
At Jubbulpore they meet Major Sleeman (a historical character) the man who vanquished the Thuggees. He is very polite and helpful to the party until they mention Mountstuart, at which time he turns cold. The Major will not allow any of his subordinates to discuss Mountstuart with Blake or Avery. In fact, his distaste for Mountstuart is so great that he will not even allow his name to be mentioned in his presence.
In spite of this, the Major is proud to display to his visitors the progress he has made in Jubbulpore and introduces them to various ex-Thugees turned state’s witness. The testimony of these individuals is the tool with which Sleeman has crushed the Thugee bandits.
As was his practice during the journey, in Jubbulpore Blake disguises himself in local garb and disappears during the night before returning to the compound in which he and Avery are housed by Sleeman.
After some days, and with no information on Mountstuart forthcoming from Sleeman and his coterie, the group decides to press on to Doora, an independent state which many in the Company believe needs to come under the tutelage of John Company. In Doora, Blake hopes to learn more of Mountstuart, who is known at one time to have had contacts with the Rao of Doora.
At first the Rao will not see them. But during a Tiger hunt, Avery saves the Rao’s life and both he and Blake are given a private audience with the Rao. During the meeting, Blake and Avery learn important information concerning Mountstuart and Blake decides he and Mir Aziz must go on to search for him although it will probably mean their deaths. Avery is ordered back to Calcutta with messages for the Company but decides to give the attendant, Sameer, the dispatch bag for delivery to his superiors and follows after Blake and Aziz.
Up to this point, the book has been rather predictable, but from here onwards it gets more interesting. If anyone wishes to find out how things develop, they will need to read the book.
While not great literature, The Strangler Vine leads the reader through an interesting tale. It is very easy to read. Apart from some Indian jargon, there is little which an average reader should have any trouble with. For those who are not familiar with such jargon, the author provides a glossary of terms at the end of the book.
That being said, there are certain things about the book which are mildly irritating. Perhaps the most glaring is that, already not long, the book could have been shortened by 50-100 pages without doing it harm. In fact, it might have improved it. At several points in the book, I had the feeling that the author was simply filling pages.
I must also point out that the sensibilities in the book are too 21st century leftist for my taste. The Christian resident of Doora is a prig. And will anyone who reads the book doubt that the author makes him pay for this? There is the stereotypical good rebel who has gone native and is not willing to sully his hands or conscience for money and the evil avaricious Company man. Frankly, the author came across like some English friends of mine who were highly embarrassed by the history of the Raj. They were of the type that would demand the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers.
Finally, I find the tone of the book is somewhat damaged by the revisionist historical view it appears to take. I can’t explain any further as, if I did, it would spoil the conclusion of the book for the reader.
There can be no doubt that the author is of the modern contradictory mindset, as she includes a historical afterword, in which she praises one of the characters mentioned in the book as a woman who “bemoaned the status of married women in England” but was fascinated with Indian culture and the harem. What is that but modern leftist romantic hypocrisy/confusion?
Let me close by saying that I found the book mildly entertaining and I might even read another one of Carter’s books. But it must be said that this is the type of book one would read on a long flight from Europe to the USA. It is something like intellectual cotton candy, mildly tasty, but lacking in nutritional value. One hungers for something more. I recommend a goodly portion of Kipling.
Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. He is the silent-partner third member of the Blake & Avery team. • (470 views)