Book Review: The Strangler Vine

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu11/6/17
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.

Click for enlarged view of this very cool cover.

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. • (176 views)

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26 Responses to Book Review: The Strangler Vine

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Excellent review, Mr. Kung. Almost everything you say pertains to her second book in the series, “The Infidel Stain” which I just finished yesterday.

    I have the third Avery & Blake book on hold at the library: The Devil’s Feast. It ought to be very easy to see if this is to my interest after 50 pages or so. It’s, interestingly, centered around cooking. This could be good or bad, depending on how it’s done. Because it’s different there is a chance that it is not the run-of-the-mill mystery.

    Yes, there was an element to “The Infidel Stain” that is a bit lacking in nutritional value, although I think this one is likely more weighty and more satisfying than “The Strangler Vine.”

    I generally am very suspicious of books written by women. Oh, nothing wrong with women as writers, per se. But it’s the same with Quentin Tarantino. If he’s anywhere near a project, I don’t want to see it. It is a matter of selection. There are millions of books out there (as well as thousands of movies) and any reader will (or ought to) develop some filtering devices. One of these for me is books written by women.

    That’s not to say that men don’t write dreadful stuff. One reason I typically reach backward for the classics is because only then can you escape the dull, mindless, boring, repetitive, unoriginal political correctness — which, of course, often involves a lot of revisionism and constant apologizing. Screw that. Just lay it out as realistically as you can and let me make the judgments.

    But in this case, I thought “The Infidel Stain” was okay. If you read “The Strangler Vine” going east-to-west on a flight then you could read this other one going west-to-east, although I’m nowhere near the speedy reader you are.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I generally am very suspicious of books written by women

      Only a few pages into the book, I had the distinct impression that the writer was a woman. I am not exactly sure why, but the feeling was there. Perhaps it is that a woman notices and stresses different things and feelings than a man would. This can be particularly apparent when writing about such manly things as the exploits mentioned in the book.

      I find a couple of female writers to be first rate. George Sands and Jane Austen spring immediately to mind. Charlotte Bronte is almost there as well. I can’t think of others off hand.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Perhaps it is that a woman notices and stresses different things and feelings than a man would.

        I’m speaking particularly, of course, of anything written in the last 40 years. It’s not to be trusted unless proven otherwise. Still, at the moment I’m reading Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain, a horribly-named book. It sounds like either a fantasy novel or some “Girl with Dragon Tattoo” chick-flick fluff. Or both.

        So far it is neither. My tender sensibilities have survived intact 17% into this. This is a terrific read so far. And I’m at the point where the death (presumably a poisoning) has occurred during a storytelling hosted by the local magistrate. This is rich with, what I presume, are Asian sensibilities.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    This one doesn’t sound like something I would bother with. I wonder if the woman who was so concerned about British marriages but so fascinated with Indian customs agreed with the British decision to suppress the custom of suttee. Famously, when an Indian insisted that this was their traditional custom, a British replied that it was a British custom to hang those who burned women alive — and suggested that both could follow their own customs. This worked very nicely.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      a British replied that it was a British custom to hang those who burned women alive

      General Sir Charles Napier, one of my favorite British commanders in India.

      This is how he is supposed to have replied to those Hindu priests regarding custom.

      “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

      I love it!

      • Timothy Lane says:

        This comes up in Flashman’s adventures with the Rani of Jhansi, one of the leaders of the 1857 Indian mutiny. He points out that she would be dead under the old custom, which Britain had eliminated by then, since she succeeded her dead husband. But she replies that the rani makes the rules, so she could simply have suspended the practice in her case.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    There is a teeny bit of background on their time in India in the second Blake-&-Avery book, “The Infidel Stain.” Most of the references regard their brave soldierly defense of Xavier Mountstuart. In the novel, there has just been a major exhibit in a London museum of a painting of the event. And because neither Blake nor Avery were available for models (or known to the artist personally), they are left to answer what becomes somewhat of a running joke in the book: “You don’t look at all like the gentlemen in the painting.”

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I kinda-sorta think I had read about the Thuggees…most likely from reading Kipling. (Almost assuredly so.) But, gads, what a profession.

    Still, little different from those who think of abortion as some validation of their cultural identity.

    Perhaps some of you have a larger knowledge and context, but the more I learn of Hinduism, the more disgusting I find it. According to this article:

    Members of the fanatical religious group, who were infamous for their ritualistic assassinations carried out in the name of the Hindu Goddess Kali

    .

    Perhaps this barbarity did spring from Islam:

    The first known record of the Thugs as an organized group, as opposed to ordinary thieves, is in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī’s History of Fīrūz Shāh dated to around 1356. Although the Thugs traced their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus also appear to have been associated with them from an early period.

    It, of course, took those awful cultural imperialists, the British, to put an end to the Thuggees. Eventually we’ll have to nuke Islam so perhaps it was good practice.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I hadn’t realized that the Thuggees, who were a Hindu cult, originated in some Muslim tribes. The Assassins were also Muslims (Ismaelites, a sect led today by the Aga Khan). They were overthrown by the Mongols in the late 13th Century, and the Thuggees (who mostly killed by strangulation) were snuffed out by the British in the first half of the 19th Century.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I believe the term, “The old man of the mountain” came from the original leader of the Assassins. They had a mountain stronghold which kept them safe until the Mongols came along.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Quite so. The founder was Hasan bin Sabah, and the mountain fortress was Alamut. I saw a TV movie about Marco Polo many years ago that included an encounter with some Assassins who took him to the Old Man of the Moumtain.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      There is a thirty-year-old movie about the Thugees titled “The Deceivers.” It starred Pierce Brosnan.

      It was not a big success when it came out, but I recall that I liked it.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Here’s the IMDB entry for it. It’s not rated high there which means little. Its low rating could very well mean that people hated it because a white cultural imperialist was the hero and the “people of color” were presented as the bad guys. Or it was just a so-so movie. Hadn’t heard of this one before.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          According to wikipedia, it was based on a novel by the historian John Masters, which was itself based on the exploits of an actual British official.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Just as an aside, one of the more substantive things mentioned in “The Infidel Stain” regarding Blake-and-Avery’s time in India (which may or may not be covered in “The Strangler Vine”) was regarding defending the Afghan border. This was brought up more to outline Avery’s disillusionment with the British leaders and strategy. I couldn’t possibly comment on the specifics or plausibility of it. But the gist of the author’s message was that Avery became disillusioned because they spent a lot of time replacing one leader in Afghanistan (or a certain region on the border) to install another…who the people didn’t like and who was fairly quickly ousted.

    The strategic goal by the British was to keep (the Russians?) from using Afghanistan as a launching point into India. Avery’s opinion was that Afghanistan was so rugged and so filled with the kind of people who make any occupation difficult that it was a fool’s errand to try to worry about exactly who was running the place.

    I don’t know the reality of the situation in that time and place, but considering that Alexander, among others, had successfully used Afghanistan as a route for invasion, it seemed a bit of the kind of revisionist history that Mr. Kung was talking about.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      There was nothing much about Afghanistan mentioned in “The Strangler Vine”, certainly no mention was made about Avery’s disillusionment with the Company because of anything to do with it. The Director General of the Company was making a big procession to the north, but not much detail was given.

      There was, however, some mention about Afghanistan in the Historical Appendix when the author wrote about another historical character mentioned in the book. As I recall the author accused the real-life character of “exaggerating” the Russian threat from the north in order to justify attacking Afghanistan.

      Whether or not the man “exaggerated” anything is something I don’t know, but there is no doubt that the Brits and Russians jockeyed for power over Afghanistan for decades. This competition was so well known and obvious that it was designated “The Great Game.” Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with the history of those times is aware of this.

      I can recommend a good book on the subject named, not surprisingly, “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk.

      I tire of amateur and revisionist historians.

      As an historical aside, it might interest readers to know that the so-called “First Afghan War” was a complete disaster for the Company. Of the 10,000 or so company soldiers who fought against the Afghans, only 1 made it back to tell the tail. And he survived only because the Afghans wanted to let the Brits know exactly what happened.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Ah, yes, the retreat from Kabul — a major part of the first Flashman book. Actually, some sepoys probably escaped independently, and a number of officers and non-combatants survived in captivity for the next year. I still remember reading how Brigadier Shelton had the bugler sound the advance after pushing through the second pass — and no one came forward, because the Afghans had killed them all as they tried to go through the pass. (Shelton pushed through it without trying to control the walls, something he probably lacked the power to do.)

        After that, the infantry made up one party, eventually brought to bay and annihilated on a hill outside of the town of Gandamak. The mounted troops (including Dr. Rawdon, the survivor) simply raced for Jalalabad, and one by one they were killed.

        Not surprisingly, I’ve read a great deal about the retreat from Kabul — including Hopkirk’s book. An article in Military History noted that Jalalabad was itself under siege by the Afghans, and one soldier predicted that no one would reach them from Kabul except for one to tell them all the rest were dead. And so it proved.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I checked up the retreat on wikipedia, and found that the surviving doctor (wounded, and on a dying horse) was Dr. Brydon, not Dr. Rawdon. The initial British numbers were about 4500 troops and 12,000 civilians.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Thanks for the info, Mr. Kung. I had never heard of the First Afghan War or its particularly disastrous results, nor the long-running rivalry with the Russians. Certainly my ears perked up when the author stuffed those words into Captain Avery’s mouth that it wasn’t worth messing with Afghanistan because no one could ever use that place as a jumping-off point. Whether revisionist or ignorant, I don’t know.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Wars with Afghanistan have a history of going awry — though they often concluded with punitive expeditions. There was one after the retreat from Kabul — but this time they didn’t try to stay there. Most sensible. The Second Afghan War was most noted for the battle of Maiwand — not as bad as the retreat from Kabul, but still pretty bad (though Dr. Watson, thanks to the courage and resourcefulness of his orderly, survived his own serious shoulder wound). I believe that one also led to a punitive expedition under Lord Roberts.

  6. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    If you have interest in the East India Company I can recommend “The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company” by John Keay.

    One interesting tidbit which is mentioned in this book is how England came into possession of Manhattan through a trade with the Dutch for a small island called Banda in the Spice Islands.

    A more generalist history book which is worth reading is “The Rise and Fall of The British Empire” by Lawrence James.

    It is worth noting that while “India” was the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, Chinese tea was a major propelling force in the establishment of various colonies across the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Straits of Malacca into the South China Sea ending first at Canton and later Hongkong. While not strictly a British Colony, Shanghai was the end of this chain by the late 1800’s.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I thought New Netherlands was traded for Surinam. But it was traded more than once, which may explain the discrepancy. The Banda islands were sources of nutmeg and cloves until the land was worn out.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        During the 1600’s, the English and Dutch often fought over trading and colonies. Although the English had been thrown out of the Banda Islands, they still claimed Run and I believe it was officially swapped for Manhattan in the second half of the century. I believe this was when England was beginning to gain and pass Dutch sea power.

        I found this swap interesting as everyone knows Manhattan, but few know of the Banda Islands and particularly Run today.

        I think it is also indicative of the difference in the way the Dutch and English acted as colonialists. The Spanish were probably the worst colonialists, but the Dutch were not much better, especially early on. I believe the British were the best colonialists as they always established a communications system, legal system, education system and encouraged trade and commerce not only for the Brits but for others. The French were probably almost as good at this as the Brits.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      There’s a Kindle version of that book for only $3.99. Maybe I’ll check it out: The Honourable Company.

  7. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have reserved “The Devil’s Feast” and look forward to comparing it to the first two books of the series.

    I have not read any of Carter’s history books so cannot comment on her writing in that sphere.

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