In the Western world, we tend to view contraries in terms of good and evil: cultivate virtue, avoid vice; admire truth, despise falsehood; gravitate toward light, shun darkness; embrace God, fear the devil. Asians, on the other hand, tend to view contraries as complementary elements that collectively contribute to wholeness and health. The concept of yin and yang, for example, is found at the core of Chinese philosophy. It represents a multitude of opposites that have to be equally present in order to obtain the desired state of peace and serenity. In a like manner, Hinduism reveres both Vishnu (the preserver and protector) and Shiva (the destroyer or transformer). Neither god is superior; both are necessary for the preservation of the universe.
All of this came to mind as a result of reading two mysteries sequentially: The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher and The Strangler Vine by M. J. Carter. Fletcher’s book―like all his work―has a lightness to it but is terribly unrealistic, and Carter’s book is full of realism but, because of that, sobering. It is not a case of good versus bad, better versus worse, or even the need for some sort of moderation. Rather, the yin and the yang added a fullness to my experience that could only be achieved by an exposure to both extremes.
J.S. Fletcher wrote during the opening years of the twentieth century—the Golden Age of detective fiction. To say that he was a prolific writer is an understatement. He completed over 200 works: historical novels, poetry, and mysteries. Given this prodigious output, it is hardly surprising that his novels lack subtlety, complex characters, and deep insights into the human condition. Rather, Fletcher is part of a tradition that started with the dime novel and now goes under the name “mass market paperback.” But don’t underestimate him; the fact that he succeeded in publishing over 200 works indicates something: while his books might not be serious literature, they are highly entertaining.
There is a certain degree of coziness and charm in Fletcher’s mysteries. Typically they are set in quaint English hamlets or coastal villages, and even when London makes an appearance, it is presented as just another gossip-laden small town (with the gossip usually running against the hero of the story). At the root of every crime is a single motive: the desire for material gain. Nothing subtle or complex here.
There is also a Disneyesque quality to Fletcher’s mysteries. His heroes exhibit unblemished virtue: they are gallent, devoted, and wise. Unfortunately, the world is not entirely pure—it also contains those who are scheming, greedy, and mendacious. Fletcher does not make it difficult for us to figure out which characters fall into the plus column and which into the minus. His mysteries are not about who is to be trusted but about which of the negatively portrayed characters is the actual murderer and how the crime was accomplished.
In terms of style, Fletcher’s writing is crisp and unadorned. He is an absolute master at presenting good dialogue—a skill that eludes many a better-known novelist. All of this makes Fletcher’s novels easy and enjoyable reads.
The fact that M.J. Carter and J.S. Fletcher both spent part of their careers as journalists is about the only similarity between them. Unlike Fletcher, Carter has not been a prolific writer. It took her fifteen years to complete two nonfiction works in the field of history, her major at Oxford University. She then decided to try her hand at historical fiction—adventure and mystery novels heavily imbued with factual history. The pace of her output picked up, but it still takes her a couple of years to finish one book. The care that Carter takes with her writing, however, has paid off in that Carter’s books are regularly nominated for or win prizes in scholarship and literature.
The first of Carter’s two novels is set in India in 1837, when the British ruled India via The East India Company, a semi-private corporation. This era was soon to end, as shortly afterward the British government would take more direct control of India, entering the period known as “the British Raj.”
Carter’s The Strangler Vine is similar in style and tone to books written by Martin Cruz Smith (if you are familiar with him): the story is just as much about the setting, time, and exotic location as it is about the mystery. And just like in Martin Cruz Smith’s novels, the locale is a dreary, oppressive one. The East India Company is portrayed as ruthless and tyrannical, obtaining most of its profits from the opium trade, sucking the very lifeblood out of the people of India like “a strangler vine.”
India’s problems at that time were not confined to those created by British imperialism. A provincial “Rao,” or rajah (throughout the book Carter adopts the spelling the British would have used during that period), lives in ostentatious splendor, while his subjects are more concerned about avoiding starvation. Then there are the “Thugs”—members of a religious sect reputed to befriend wayfarers only to subsequently strangle them in a ceremonious fashion.
The narrator of the story, William Avery, hates his life in India. He is employed as a low-ranking foot soldier by the Company. Taking no interest in the “Hindoos,” who are suffering in the dank, oppressive heat typical of the fall season in India, and bored by the lack of any real duties, Avery is angry and resentful. He would love to return to England, but he lacks the money to pay for his passage and has no prospect of employment in England if he did make it.
Ironically, Avery gets paired up with his polar opposite, Jeremiah Blake, who has a murky history and has “gone native,” choosing to distance himself from the British and live like a Hindoo. As a Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes team, Avery and Blake make a truly odd couple. Their relationship is not based upon mutual respect but suspicion and distrust. Despite their discomfort with each other, they are sent off on an adventure quest and travel to the central regions of India, where they encounter individuals some of whom are real and others who are fictional.
Carter is the better novelist. Her work is more sophisticated than Fletcher’s, and she represents reality as it really is: messy. From a purely intellectual standpoint, end of discussion. In actual practice, however, I found Fletcher to be a welcome yin to counterbalance Carter’s yang. His books conjure up a world in which good necessarily triumphs over evil, and nice people win in the end. Admittedly, this is the kind of material found in youthful fantasies, but there is no reason to be ashamed for indulging. Adding a certain amount of idealism and optimism to one’s life makes it more complete—and more enjoyable.