William Avery is a junior officer in the East India Company. Based in Calcutta, his experience of the place has not lived up to expectations:
But as time passed the notions I had harboured about the beauty of the place, and my hopes of distinguishing myself, had been replaced by an intense and bitter homesickness for England and the realization that it was more than likely I would never see it again. The odds – well understood but never spoken aloud – were that most of us would die before we ever returned.
Avery went to India inspired by the writings of Xavier Mountstuart, a poet and prose writer who produced tales and essays about a country which seemed to be exotic and romantic.
The novel begins with Avery delivering a message from the Governor General’s office to a civilian named Jeremiah Blake. Although the journey across the city is relatively short, Avery’s lack of comfort is evident in the ninety-five degree heat of a filthy city. His meeting with Blake does not leave him feeling any further comfort either:
Wrapped in a large cotton blanket, he shuffled into the courtyard, apparently oblivious of my existence. He was a poor thing, grizzled, puffy-eyed, wearing a mangy beard, and barefoot. Beneath his blanket I could see an unkempt muslin shirt and a pair of dirty white pyjamas.
‘Fuck off, lobster,’ the man said.
Unfortunately for both of them, they end up being sent on a mission together, a mission to find Xavier Mountstuart whose latest work Leda and Rama is the talk of Calcutta. The man himself, however, has disappeared on an excursion to discover more about the Thugs – gangs of outlaws who cause terror in certain regions of the country, strangling their victims with a rumal, a long knotted orange scarf.
Neither Blake nor Avery want to go – and especially not together – but Blake has a personal connection with the poet and Avery is offered a free pass home to Devon if he spies on Blake and reports any problems to senior officers along the route.
What follows is a treacherous and violent journey; danger seems to be present at every turn from a range of expected and unexpected sources. The Strangler Vine is a brutal and bloody book with twists and turns which had me turning pages and gasping frequently.
It works well as a ‘crime/detective’ novel with a fast pace and plenty of intrigue; however, it’s also a comment on class and the workings of government. This is shown most obviously in the pairing of Avery and Blake – one middle class naïve, one working class self-educated and savvy. It’s also highlighted though in the discoveries the duo make along the way and the East India Company’s style of rule draws some interesting – and scary – parallels with our current government and their treatment of the poor, as well as more brutal events happening around the world.
The Strangler Vine is a good read that works equally well as a page-turning detective novel and as a comment on society. I’m already looking forward to Blake and Avery’s next case.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.