I picked up The Strangler Vine, the first novel in M.J. Carter’s Blake and Avery series, for the same reason I usually pick up a book: the cover. The American hardback edition of Strangler Vine has an exceptionally beautiful cover, but the book, and its continuation in The Printer’s Coffin*, have a lot more to offer than just good looks…
Reading the first Blake and Avery novel was, for me, one of those serendipitous occasions on which I pick up a book because I like the cover and instantly find myself immersed in the story and attached to the characters. Part of me thinks I liked Strangler Vine better than Printer’s Coffin, mainly because it was set in India. I’m interested in the (brutal) history, causes, political ramifications and (continuing) consequences of British Imperialism; it’s something of a morbid fascination that has led to genuine interest and study. Add to this the fact that Printer’s Coffin could reasonably be described as Yet Another Historical Novel Set In London-practically a genre in itself and one which I’m thoroughly tired of. But again, Carter surprised me. I found the second book in the series a worthy continuation of the first, a book which seamlessly incorporated the social issues and revolutionary politics that were so divisive and incendiary in mid-19th century England. This, probably, is what won me over, and quickly at that.
The series itself has been compared (ad nauseam, in my opinion) to the Sherlock Holmes stories-Blake the eccentric (and sometimes drug-addled) investigator, tailed by the often confused and oftener righteously indignant Afghanistan veteran Avery-and while I don’t know if Carter herself views this description as flattering or irritating, I can say for myself that I don’t find it entirely accurate. The parallels I’ve described above are indeed true but the book is more than just a murder mystery. Please note I’ve read quite a few Sherlock Holmes stories in my time but it’s been a while, so please forgive me if I inaccurately characterize the Holmes stories in comparison (and feel free to correct me!).
There are a few elements which elevate this book above the level of Another Sherlock Holmes Pastiche (another tiresome genre): the foremost of which, I suppose, is the politics of the work. Blake is a self-avowed radical, firmly anti-establishment; a fact which-more than any lack of personal warmth or hygiene-puts him at odds with the very men who pay his wages. One sees in Blake a constant conflict, between his distaste for the privileged and the certain knowledge that investigating is the only thing he’s ever been good at, and this is what makes his character-as inscrutable and laconic as he is-so compelling.
Avery on the other hand is just the opposite, the perfect foil. The events of the books make him less, not more, sure of his politics and this personal flux is what makes him so interesting a narrator: we can see throughout Vine and Coffin that he is changing, learning, growing as a character. In the first book and in the second his inexperience-first with India, then London-is useful: the reader sees through his eyes and the explanations of place and setting don’t seem gratuitous or artificial. He is also a somewhat naive narrator-for all his newfound world-weariness, and uniquely unreliable. I loved Avery in the first book because he was dissolute and ignorant but ultimately good-hearted (my favorite kind of male character), but the Avery of Printer’s Coffin is a changed man: he’s seen more of war and has experienced the loss of his fellow servicemen as a personal tragedy, though his politics at the beginning of Coffin are still rigidly those of his class. He says early on in the book, about a printer of pornography whose murder he is investigating, Thus I discovered what Blake had understood well before me: why Nat Wedderburn was not a good man (p 66). This is the kind of black-and-white moralistic thinking characteristic of the English upper classes of the time and, as I had hoped, the story was developed further and Avery’s perception began to change. The character of Matty Horner-who I am pleased will return in book 3-is his object lesson (though also a character in her own right) and through her he begins to understand the complexities of poverty, free speech and censorship.
As for the cosmetic, the prose itself is often quite beautiful too. One of my favorite descriptions is of the philanthropic Viscount Allington: (he) stood between the brown-caped man and the lady like the apex of a triangle; both looking expectantly up at him as at an admired saint in a religious painting. This description is both evocative and describes the pious Viscount’s character perfectly. And the book is characterized by this type of description. Through the eyes of Avery (a secret novel reader) we see both wealth and extreme poverty movingly described. About half the characters in the book are people living-by today’s standards at least-in abject poverty and, rather than just being caricatures for the edification of the upper classes, through Avery’s words they are shown to have personalities, motivations and desires all their own.
Overall, The Printer’s Coffin is a worthy continuation to what is shaping up to be an excellent series. I have more to say about it but this review is long enough already. I look forward eagerly to the third book, The Devil’s Feast, which arrives October 27th of this year.
*Note, the original title of The Printer’s Coffin is The Infidel Stain, which has been changed for paperback release.