The Strangler Vine (March 2015) by M.J. Carter is a testosterone-seeped adventure novel steeped in mystery and intrigue, laced with rich, ebullient descriptions of Hindustani and Muhammad culture during the British Indian Company’s occupation. Written in the vein of a modern-day Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, and Orson Welles, with a dashing flavor of King Solomon’s Mines, it is a finely crafted “Dr. Livingston, I presume” gripping tale of honor, friendship, deceit, betrayal, and vindication that transports its reader into the fictitious realm of stark, historical realities.
A young “Company” officer, Lieutenant William Avery, is assigned to accompany Jeremiah Blake, a seasoned, yet jaded Special Inquiry Agent, in search of Xavier Mountstuart, a famous author whom Avery greatly admires. Avery quickly discovers this straightforward task is not what it seems. His best friend, after warning him of treachery, is mysteriously murdered. Blake is really not who he is supposed to be. Mountstuart, a vague side line character, is the actual crux of Carter’s ingeniously twisted plot. With Major Sleeman, from the Thugee Department, and delightfully eccentric Fanny Parkes – both lifted straight from history’s pages – the stage is set for one of the best debut historical thrillers of this year.
Carter writes on page 210: “Honest intentions do not always beget honest acts.” This succinctly encapsulates the theme of her debut novel. Hang on to your seats, dear readers, because this is one heck of a gloriously bumpy read…er…ride..
A former journalist and nonfiction writer, Carter has a stunning talent for research. She incorporates various intriguing and often mesmerizing details into her finely crafted plot. While it meanders a bit in some spots, especially during travel scenes, Avery’s first-person mental wanderings are a trove of cultural and ethnic minutiae that elucidate the finer points of Indian life in the early 1800s. Carter also sprinkles her dialogue and description with native words, defined in a helpful glossary. These add a rich depth seldom read in thrillers, immersing the reader in such a way that it is easy to imagine being in the courts of a Rao, holding audience with a Maharani, or riding an elephant on the Great Trunk Road on the way to Julupore. There are, however a few too many gory, explicit scenes that might put the average reader off. But Carter uses her well-written blood and guts, a hallmark of a good mystery writer, to her plot’s greatest realistic advantage.
While it takes a while for The Strangler Vine to pick up its pace, reveal the meaning of its eponymous, metaphoric title, and unravel connections between its variously intriguing characters, it is well worth the reader’s patience and effort. This novel is guaranteed to engagingly lift you out of your comfort zone and into the nether regions of your darkest imaginings. And the ending, with its explanatory historical note, neatly ties up all the deceptively loose ends.
A fastidious and capable author, Carter is a welcomed new voice to the literary genre of historical mystery/thrillers.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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