Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Calcutta 1837: India is under
the stranglehold of the East India Company, “a mechanism for the domination of
one people by another for the latter’s enrichment” according to one of the
Company’s subversive agents. Much of that enrichment derived from the opium
trade where the profits were equalled only by the extent of bribery and
corruption that maintained dominance.
this maelstrom young Ensign Avery, fresh from Devonshire, is thrown, to be
despatched shortly as some kind of escort to the dubious agent, Jeremiah Blake,
their orders being to locate a Scottish poet who has disappeared in the jungle
hundreds of miles away. From the start Avery has doubts concerning their stated
goal, suspecting that Blake is party to some hidden agenda. The youngster is
deeply resentful of the situation; he hates India: the dirt and poverty, the
discomforts of upcountry travel where the squalor of native huts is only
marginally preferable to sleeping in a tent on the ground at the mercy of wild
animals and wilder men. Thugs haunt the roads, its devotees strangling
travellers to offer their victims as sacrifice to the dread god, Kali.
worlds open to Avery. From the starched discipline of Calcutta’s cantonments,
by way of the Grand Truck Road, the jungle, monsoon rains and saddle sores, he
comes to the outstations where English officers have assumed sovereign powers,
counterpart to those of the native princes, still precariously independent,
surrounded by murderous intrigue. Increasingly, in Company Mess and servants’
quarters, in harem and bazaar, Avery and Blake pick up faint clues concerning
the fate of the mystery poet. They are stalked and sometimes attacked by unseen
and unsuspected enemies, unsuspected because nothing and no one are as they
seem. Avery grows up. From the callow homesick youth hating India, loathing
Blake, he starts to emerge a responsible intelligent fellow, an excellent shot
– and a tiger when it comes to hand-to-hand fighting.
as a rip-roaring yarn The Strangler Vine
is more than that. There are shades of Kipling, lacking his colour and style,
but also his jingoism for Carter exposes a kind of treachery that would have
shocked Victorian readers to the core. However she has done the homework and
cites her sources, so taking all on trust it is no surprise to be reminded that
twenty years after Avery’s fictitious adventure (where he heard first rumours
of “a breaking machine”) the Indian Mutiny occurred, was viciously suppressed
and the East India Company dissolved.