Immersed in the culture of 1830s India, this thriller takes hold of the imagination, spiraling back through time to the days of the British East India Company and its domination of the opium trade. A short prologue sets the tone for a tale that is rich in historical detail and the bizarre disharmony of Englishmen bent on ruling large swaths of a country that quietly resists its thinly-veiled intentions to tame the uncivilized. The Company grants permission to subdue any remnants of the Thugee cult.
These devotees of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, strike unwary travelers with flashing blades in the dead of night. Historically, the Thugs terrorize unwitting groups of travelers with legendary skill, escaping into the bush. Viewing the cult as a threat to the order they are imposing on India, the Company vigorously stamps out any remote vestiges of the cult still operating.
At heart a mystery, The Strangler Vine focuses upon the disappearance of popular author Xavier Mountstuart, whose recent
roman a clef has all of British society in India gossiping. Intrigued by Thug lore, Mountstuart is rumored to have traveled from Calcutta to the central states to complete his latest work, a long poem about the Thugs. Since the eccentric writer has not returned from his expedition as expected, two very different men are brought together on a mission to find Mountstuart.
The journey reveals as well the extent of the Company’s reach and the reaction of a country often at odds with those who would colonize their land. For the Company, the huge investment has in funds and personnel have paid richly, but the strict, militaristic rule does not coexist comfortably with princely states used to exerting their own autonomy.
A former political agent “gone native,” Jeremiah Blake begrudgingly accepts the assignment to locate Mountstuart.
He is accompanied by a man with few hopeful prospects with the Company--William Avery, newly promoted Lieutenant for the occasion--and a few men. The taciturn Blake has little use for Avery’s blind devotion to his superiors, their uneasy partnership exacerbated by Avery’s impulsiveness and need to please Company officers. In time, Avery learns to appreciate Blake’s knowledge of Indian custom and his facility with languages as they move deeper into the uncharted territory beyond Company-dominated Calcutta.
Everywhere, no matter how distant, the Company’s presence is felt in the gradual expansion of territory, the restrictions on locals, the purposeful smothering of a culture steeped in tradition and ritual. Recent crop failures--opium often now replacing food crops--has instilled the native fear of famine, adding another layer of suspicion and contempt for the encroaching Company.
The author does an excellent job contrasting the ambitions of the Company with the realities of India, a steep learning curve for Avery, who is forced to relinquish some of his pro-Company prejudices as experiences prove his blind fidelity not only foolish, but dangerous. Along the way, they are welcomed by the famed Thugee suppressor Major Sleeman, a true believer who claims to have rid the state of these clever thieves. The searchers plunge further into the exotic world beyond Company reach in search of Mountstuart, worn down and depleted by an exhausting and unnerving expedition. Blake and Avery encounter treachery and peril at every turn, pursued relentlessly by enemies disguised as friends. The title proves particularly apt, the “strangler vine” a metaphor for the British East India Company’s expansion and colonization of India, savaging the country with insatiable greed, cannibalizing and plundering its resources. Filled with the wild beauty of an India in the throes of domination, this is an excruciating, shocking novel exposing the heart of darkness in the souls of ambitious men.