Calcutta 1837. The East India Company rules India - or most of it; and its most notorious and celebrated son, Xavier Mountstuart, has gone missing. William Avery, a down-at-heel junior officer in the Company's army, is sent to find him, in the unlikely company of the enigmatic and uncouth Jeremiah Blake. A more mismatched duo couldn't be imagined, but they must bury their differences as they are caught up in a search that turns up too many unanswered questions and seems bound to end in failure. What was it that so captivated Mountstuart about the Thugs, the murderous sect of Kali-worshippers who strangle innocent travellers by the roadside? Who is Jeremiah Blake and can he be trusted? And why is the whole enterprise shrouded in such secrecy?
When Xavier Mountstuart, celebrated author of adventure novels disappears the East India Company sends young officer William Avery to find him. Accompanying him is Jeremiah Blake, a mysterious figure who dresses and lives like a native and seems to possess a vast knowledge of India and its inhabitants. While Blake has perfectly adapted to the Asian lifestyle Avery struggles with the humidity and heat, the strange customs and last but not least with his own floundering finances, deeply in debt he is promised return to England should he successfully accomplish his mission.
Initially Avery and Blake cannot stand each other. The young officer loathes the other man’s rudeness and sees him as a shady, unreliable character, while Blake is reluctant to assist the British authorities. However slowly they learn to respect each other, especially after Avery proves his mettle in a violent incident which leaves him wounded. Eventually they start to work together and manage to uncover a vast conspiracy involving the dangerous Thugs who commit horrible acts of violence, targeting innocent travellers.
I thought this was quite a well-written novel, which only suffered a bit from slow pacing in the middle and a relatively predictable plot. In the afterword the authors talks about how she incorporated modern historical research about the Thugs into her story, for me perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tale.
The Strangler Vine is a fine historical adventure thriller, even though as a mystery it is not entirely successful. The secret at the heart of the story is relatively easy to guess and the protagonist Avery behaves a bit too naively sometimes, I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.