The Strangler Vine, by MJ Carter, Fig Tree, RRP£14.99, 339 pages
The word “thug” long ago entered the English language, and most of us are vaguely aware that Thuggee was a violent Indian sect. We might even have heard that the cult was in honour of the goddess Kali, who liked her devotees to mug their victims and throttle or knife them.
MJ Carter’s The Strangler Vine takes us back to the India of the late 1830s, where it would seem that the Thugs are at the height of their murderous activity. It is an exciting fictional debut from an author whose first book, on the spy Anthony Blunt, was one of the best biographies I have read – I still find it incomprehensible that one so young and so far removed from Blunt’s milieu could have so convincingly “got” him.
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, the physical appearances of all the characters, Indian and European, are evoked with Tolstoyan freshness.
Protagonist Jeremiah Blake is an old India hand, engaged by the East India Company as a drummer boy, and fluent in Sanskrit, Hindustani and Persian. He is exhilaratingly anarchic and insubordinate to his superiors in the company, and the more we learn of his story, the more we understand why he has a highly ambivalent attitude to the East India Company and its activities. Blake is commissioned to go in search of Xavier Mountstuart, a Byronic poet. His companion on the quest, and also the narrator of the tale, Lieutenant William Avery, is a decent, home-loving young gentleman, drawn to India by his love of Mountstuart’s poetry, with all its evocation of the subcontinent’s exotic allure.
Mountstuart is obsessed by the Thugs, and has written a long poem about them. Although the poet has put the backs up of some of the East India Company’s stuffed shirts, he is a distinguished man, and when he goes missing, the company wants him located. Blake and Avery are sent in pursuit, first through a terrifying “Thug”-infested forest; then to Jubbulpore (Jabalpur) where they meet Major William Sleeman. This real-life character, well-versed in the languages and customs of India, is the key source for much of our knowledge of Thuggee.
Sleeman is so hostile to the missing poet that he will not even allow him to be named in his presence. By the time they have entered the court of the Rao of Doora, almost died in a tiger hunt and been kidnapped by a band of “thugs”, young Avery has begun to understand a bit more about Indian history, and so why Blake has such an ambiguous attitude to the company and why the raffish poet was persona non grata with the major.
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 sceptical view of imperialist propaganda. I do not remember when I enjoyed a novel more than this. Finishing it would have been unbearable had it not been for the reassuring promise at the end that Blake and Avery will return for more adventures.
AN Wilson is author of ‘The Potter’s Hand’ (Atlantic)