Colonial India provides the backdrop for historian M.J. Carter’s first thriller, The Strangler Vine.
How did you first learn about the gang of murderers called Thugs?
My late mother-in-law, a remarkable woman, ran a teacher training college in Madras, India, in the 1950s. She talked about the Thugs and how the East India Company soldier and administrator William Sleeman suppressed them. She said that though Sleeman was hailed as a hero, he was absolutely ruthless in crushing the Thugs.
Were you surprised by anything in your research about India?
Yes, a lot. I’d never taken much interest in the British Empire—people of my post-Empire generation didn’t. We’re rather embarrassed about it, and so we avoid having to the think about. It’s a shame, as it’s a really huge—and complicated—part of our history. There are so many remarkable stories and characters we’ve just forgotten. I was fascinated by Sleeman—a brilliant linguist, the first to excavate fossils in India, the first to collect stories about Wolf Children—which inspired Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I was also horrified to learn of the scale of state murder in India: the Thug hangings, then the way the British mismanaged various famines and the scale of the revenge they took on the Indians after the Indian Mutiny.
Did your training as a historian help you in writing fiction?
I didn’t feel intimidated by the research—it’s the bit I feel comfortable with. I could go on reading forever. One of the things I’ve always liked about good crime fiction is that it often gives you a world. I felt I could do that—in the historical nonfiction I wrote beforehand, I was trying to make the characters and world I was writing about as vivid and interesting as possible.
What was the hardest part of writing The Strangler Vine?
Plot! And how one unfolds the story and clues. I had one very good piece of advice from my husband, who’s a novelist. He said if you’re starting out, write in the first person, it’s easier to establish a voice and a tone. And he was completely right. So I had the book narrated by a clueless Englishman, which meant that it didn’t matter if I didn’t know everything about India, or indeed, the unfolding plot. My first drafts were full of great horrible chunks of fact, and with each draft I had to whittle it away, until by the end the balance was just about right. Then there were the continuity problems. To start with, people were endlessly standing up and sitting down and going in and out of doors—dire. It took me awhile to realize I could just cut that stuff out.