India, 1837: William Avery is a young soldier with few prospects except rotting away in campaigns in India; Jeremiah Blake is a secret political agent gone native, a genius at languages and disguises, disenchanted with the whole ethos of British rule, but who cannot resist the challenge of an unresolved mystery. What starts as a wild goose chase for this unlikely pair—trying to track down a missing writer who lifts the lid on Calcutta society—becomes very much more sinister as Blake and Avery get sucked into the mysterious Thuggee cult and its even more ominous suppression.
There are shades of Heart of Darkness, sly references to Conan Doyle, that bring brilliantly to life the India of the 1830s with its urban squalor, glamorous princely courts and bazaars, and the ambiguous presence of the British overlords—the officers of the East India Company—who have their own predatory ambitions beyond London's oversight.
A FINALIST FOR THE EDGAR AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL
A WASHINGTON POST NOTABLE BOOK
LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION
About the Author
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Calcutta, September 1837
Excerpted from "The Strangler Vine"
Copyright © 2015 M.J. Carter.
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What People are Saying About This
Praise for THE STRANGLER VINE
“The Strangler Vine is a splendid novel with an enthralling story, a wonderfully drawn atmosphere, and an exotic mystery that captivated me.”—Bernard Cornwell
“Shades of H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling! Fans of the old-school adventure genre, in which brave heroes plunge into an unspeakable wilderness, finding danger at every step, should rejoice. . . . An absolute corker of a read, with marvelous characterization and trenchant historical analysis.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Superior fiction debut . . . The quest takes some surprising turns, and Carter is masterly at keeping the reader guessing what’s really going on. The final revelation is jaw-dropping”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“From the thrilling prolog to the satisfying conclusion, former journalist and nonfiction author Carter’s first foray into fiction hooks the reader into a ripping adventure ride, full of danger, conspiracy, and trickery. Carter’s clever historical thriller is a winner. The details of life in 1830s India are enthralling, as is the history of the Thugs. Historical fiction fans who love action, adventure, and intrigue supported by incredible research will devour this novel, which was longlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“In the great detective novel tradition of The Moonstone and the Sherlock Holmes series, by way of The Glass Books trilogy, Carter’s debut is a thriller set in 1837 India. Two mismatched men from the East India Company, William Avery and Jeremiah Blake, are sent off to rescue Byronic poet-adventurer Xavier Mountstuart from a murderous sect of Kali worshippers. With gorgeous historical detail and deft characterization, Carter creates a rip-roaring detective romp — while also casting a gimlet eye on the effects of British imperialism and colonization of India."—Susan Elia MacNeal, New York Times-bestselling author of the Maggie Hope series
“This is a gripping story of conspiracy and betrayal set in an early Victorian India that is rendered with complete conviction. And as a historian, the author offers a thought-provoking re-interpretation of the Thuggee story.”—Charles Palliser, international bestselling author of The Quincunx
“M. J. Carter has cooked up a spicy dish: a pinch of Moonstone, a dash of Sherlock and a soupçon of Fu Manchu added to a rich stew of John Masters. A splendid romp and just the job for a cold winter's evening in front of a blazing fire”—William Dalrymple, author of White Mugals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India
“An exciting fictional debut . . . The Strangler Vine represents what must be a lifetime spent reading and soaking up Indian history and geography: you feel yourself to be in India in its grand palaces and its bazaars; in its colonial offices and in its jungles. Clothes, food, languages, and the physical appearance of all the characters, Indian and European, are evoked with Tolstoyan freshness . . . As well as being a rattling good yarn in the traditions of GA Henty or Rudyard Kipling, this is also a well-informed and enlightened modern book that has a properly skeptical view of imperialist propaganda. I do not remember when I enjoyed a novel more than this.”—AN Wilson, the Financial Times
“A strangler vine is a plant that chokes the life out of its host tree. In this erudite thriller, MJ Carter uses the image to describe the relationship between the East India Company and the colonized country being suffocated in its grip . . . fresh and original with many surprises in store . . . history subtly and intelligently entwines itself around a cracking good plot.”—London Evening Standard
“Lots of fast-moving drama, but [also] a carefully researched setting in early Victorian India . . . Carter gives us delicious descriptions of the wonderful court of a Rao, or Rajah: the hunting cheetahs, elephants wound about with golden chains. There are horrors too: the famine surrounding this dazzling wealth, the criminals executed by elephant-trampling. But ever onwards through the jungle presses the gallant young Avery, encountering treachery and violence, finally triumphing after many perils as a hero should. It’s a great read, white tigers and all.”—The Independent
“[An] excellent first novel . . . It blends John Masters, William Boyd, Wilkie Collins, and the Conan Doyle of Brigadier Gerard and the more orientalist Holmes stories to create a witty and entrancing historical thriller. . . . An inspired mix of sensation novel and odd-couple road novel, The Strangler Vine has a smirking sense of the absurdity of the whole colonial project.”—The Guardian
“The best elements of an old-fashioned ripping yarn unite with a plot that makes clever use of recent historical ideas about the British in India in MJ Carter’s The Strangler Vine . . . Carter’s twisting, devious narrative is enhanced by her vigorous prose and her convincing delineation of her chief characters, whose further adventures, already announced, can be keenly anticipated.”—Sunday Times
“The story is exciting, the mystery real and its setting vividly evoked…I am already looking forward to the next one.”—The Literary Review
“The Strangler Vine is a considerable achievement, which left me waiting impatiently for a promised sequel.”—The Times
“Intelligent, extensively researched and packed with period detail, The Strangler Vine evokes both the attitudes of the British colonials and the India of the period.”—Metro
“A meticulously researched historical novel with a subversive and startling sting in its tail.”—The Spectator
Reading Group Guide
THE STRANGLER VINE Discussion Guide
1. Consider the characters of Jeremiah Blake and William Avery. How do they respond differently to the world around them? What defines their values?
2. The modern term “thug” is derived from the historical usage depicted in the book, of the roving Indian band called the Thuggee. How our use of this word today similar to or different from its original meaning?
3. Consider the structure of the novel, which contains elements of both a mystery and a journey or quest. How would you categorize this story? What nineteenth-century fiction might it be compared to?
4. What is the significance of the title?
5. M. J. Carter brought to the novel a strong sense of place, and India is as much a character as the protagonists. How is the country depicted? How was it affected by the rule of England and the British East India Company?
6. One of the joys of reading historical fiction lies in learning about the true-life events, people, and details that the author brings into the narrative. Which of the real historical elements was most fascinating to you, and why?
7. The women characters play smaller but still interesting roles in the novel. Compare and contrast the characters of Helen Larkbridge and Mrs. Parkes: How are their personalities, ambitions, and positions in life alike or different? How is each in her own way a product of the period and place?
8. Consider the systems of class and sociopolitical status portrayed in the novel, ranging from the depiction of English characters like Blake and Major Sleeman to the depiction of Indian characters such as the Rao. In what ways are class structures complicated by ethnicity and the colonial setting? To what extent are these structures rigid or fluid?
9. Were you surprised by the big twist about the Thugs? Why, or why not?
10. Many of the themes explored in The Strangler Vine resonate in the present day. What parallels do you find?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Many historians lack the ability to write in an accessible language. This novel is an exception, and considering it is her first attempt at fiction, I was truly impressed. I've read a number of historical works concerning the India Tea Company and this kept to a high level of accuracy while unfolding in a very exciting story. I'd highly recommend.
India in 1837 is a very frightening place. William Avery is an intelligent person but uses his brains to gamble and drink too much. The result? He’s seriously in debt and in no position to turn down any command he is ordered to obey in his position as a soldier working for the East India Company. The natives are dependent on the British for jobs but it is very clear they are not bonding very well. Avery’s possessions are gradually being stolen and his friend Frank who seems so calm, collected and focused is about to experience a disaster. Avery cannot believe what he hears about Frank later on because Frank seemed so perfect. The writings of Xavier Mountstuart on India had so entranced Avery that he decided to serve in India but the writings and the reality don’t quite match. Now Mountstuart seems to have gone “native,” meaning he’s living like an Indian and causing trouble wherever he appears. It’s Avery’s job to serve Jeremiah Blake, who is a secret political agent supposedly retired, in their quest to find Mountstuart. India is described on this journey in all of its ugliness and enchanting beauty. The weather is described as fairly intolerable as it’s excruciatingly hot and rainy since it’s the monsoon season. I couldn’t help thinking I was reading descriptions that vie Joseph Conrad’s writing – that dark, mysterious atmosphere that seems to pass from dangerous, life-threatening trails to momentary periods of relative safety but in which one cannot relax for fear of the unknown suddenly appearing to end life. The characters are mysterious as well. Jeremiah has gone native in more ways than one as he knows the terrain through which they travel and after some definitely antagonistic skirmishes with Avery he actually comes to like Avery. For Avery is really not stupid but more like a bumbling fool, who seems to get into every possible danger on the trip up north. Avery finally learns to let go of his “British arrogance” stance with Jeremiah and trust him. They gradually become friends. Readers will meet a group of natives called Thugs who kill for ritual sacrifice purposes. We are told they will not kill any British person because they are an unworthy and disgusting bunch and not worthy of their sacred rites. Who are they really and are they a threat to Avery and Jeremiah? The reader will not be able to put this down because it’s so riveting in unique ways. M. J. Carter is a master writer who knows how to populate a story with unusual characters, an unpredictable fierce plot, and enough indirect and ironic satire to condemn the entire East India Company although the reader isn’t sure about that until well into the complex plot. Fine, fine novel that is highly recommended historical fiction! It would make quite a unique movie!