Mystery and Mayhem in the Imperial Moonlight
In 1978 the scholar Edward Said published the book Orientalism, which examined Western attitudes towards and cultural representations of so-called Eastern parts of the world: Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa in particular. He pointed out that these attitudes were often ill-informed, sentimental, and patronizing towards the people and customs of these countries. Imperialist nations wanted to ensure that their imperial mission to civilize and rule these subjugated countries was seen to be valid not only by others, but also by the subjugated peoples and themselves. M.J. Carter’s adroit mystery novel The Strangler Vine manages to play with or debunk many Imperialist tropes cleverly, creating a colorful and picturesque detective romp through the colonized India of 1837 while maintaining a subtly modern revisionist perspective.
In 1837 India was governed by the East India Company, a concern with its own army that had given up its original mission, which was to trade with the East. Instead, it had decided to take over large parts of India and rule it. It was both a company and a part of the British state. As the author says, “it was arguably the first multinational.” Young William Avery, who has recently arrived in India from England, glumly exists in the unglamorous life he has found as a young English soldier newly employed by the East India Company. As a youngest son he needs to earn a living, and has few connections, ideas for advancing, or prospects for a better situation, along with debt from gambling. With British young ladies few on the ground, he falls for the lovely, if ignorant, Helen Larkbridge. He feels sure that she will choose someone whose prosperous future in India seems assured, however.
When Avery is asked to go find a subversive political agent well-versed in foreign languages, he has the typical reaction of a British soldier living in the insular bubble of Anglo-Indian society. He is disgusted at finding Jeremiah Blake, who has gone native. Blake has given up his captaincy in the East India Company Army and lives outside its quarters, widowed by an Indian woman, dressing in native garb, and learning Hindustani, Urdu, Pashto, Marathi, Gujarati, and other subcontinental languages. A rebel, Blake only works for the Secret and Political Department as a secret agent under duress.
The Chief Military Secretary, Colonel Patrick Buchanan, forces young Avery, a greenhorn with no Indian languages or special talents except the ability to ride and shoot, into accompanying Blake on a special mission. They must find one of Avery’s favorite writers, a famous Byronic figure named Xavier Mountstuart, who disappeared in the city of Jubbulpore while researching material for his next poem about the Thuggee, a cult of thieves and murderers. When Avery resists, Buchanan informs him that if they accomplish their task, he can choose his future, and if they don’t, Avery will be sent to a remote malarial hole near Calcutta to rot away, never getting out of debt or the East India Company Army.
When Avery and Blake start out on their quest, they are aiming to find the sensational author Mountstuart, but they also know that they will be heading into the heart of Thug territory in central India as they undertake their journey along the road. The Thuggee is known as a notorious group of thieves and murders that infiltrates groups of travelers and then strangles them from behind with rumals, or scarves. When they finally arrive in Jubbulpore, they meet a Major Sleeman, who is in charge of the station there. Sleeman claims to have solved the Thug problem and written numerous articles and books about them. Yet both Blake and Avery feel that something is off, particularly when Sleeman doesn’t want Blake talking to the natives under arrest for being Thugs.
Carter employs Blake as a voice of reason and one who stands up for the natives in the face of the East India Company as he encounters all of its officials along the road. In noting to Major Sleeman at one point that Indians are no better off financially, and in fact are poorer because of the company demanding higher rents from landowners, Blake serves as a voice of reason. Here, through her subversive character, Carter undermines the blatant Orientalism accepted and practiced by the East India Company.
While Blake and Avery, along with their native guides, travel on a journey from Jubbulpore to visit a native Prince and undertake an impromptu tiger hunt, Avery begins to shed some of his preconceived notions and respect for the all-powerful Company in favor of his native assistants and people he meets along the road, such as the occasional unusual European figure. Such individuals include the real historical figure Fanny Parkes, wife of an East India Company civil servant. Instead of eschewing India and staying in her insular European enclave, she came to love India, learning Hindustani and the sitar, and remaining fascinated by its rich cultures. She symbolizes India’s effect on Avery.
As adventure and danger lurk around every corner, Avery unwittingly starts to fall in love with the India he sees. Yet he still worries about the Thuggee culture and the prospect of bands of Thugs coming after him and Blake while they seek the flamboyant author Mountstuart, who may or may not be alive.
The Strangler Vine is a very well-written and well-researched mystery that shows linguistic influences of nineteenth-century whodunits by Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. M.J. Carter performs a balancing act, writing a briskly paced and engaging thriller in a nineteenth-century literary style with old-fashioned spellings while including insights gleaned from studying the pitfalls and problems of British imperialism in India, and the real Thuggee phenomenon in particular, from hindsight. Therefore this novel is a literary and historical mystery that offers modern perspectives on that history, thus cementing its appeal for today’s reader.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer