Time for another British Library Crime Classic: Antidote to Venom from Irish author Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957). Published in 1938, Antidote to Venom is a gem from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. For brilliant plotting, structure, characterization, and sheer ingenuity, Antidote to Venom is a marvelous read–a book I was loath to set aside, so for readers out there who have any interest in crime fiction of this period, do yourself a favour and grab this book.
In the introduction, Martin Edwards describes Antidote to Venom as “ambitious and unusual,” and the book is certainly both of those things, and yet when a book is described as ‘ambitious’ there’s often a subtext of failed effort. There’s no failure here in this highly readable, engaging, inventive, and unpredictable crime novel.
Edwards explains that in the years before he wrote this book, Crofts had been experimenting with his detective fiction, “trying to escape from the predictable.” In Antidote to Venom Crofts used what he called “an ‘inverted story’ in which events are seen at first from the perspective of the culprit.” Crofts’ structure is sheer wizardry, for the book begins with the story of George Surridge, the Director of the Birmingham Zoo. The zoo, which boasts a phenomenal snake collection, is moving onto more modern enclosures for the animals, and one of George’s headaches is concern for safety. He’s given permission for an elderly professor, who’s experimenting with venom as a cure for cancer, access to the most poisonous snakes, and when the book opens, George has the painful duty of firing a night watchman for leaving the zoo unattended. George is a decent man, devoted and conscientious with his work, but married to an unpleasant society woman whose constant demands have worn George down to plodding unhappiness. He meets another woman, falls in love, and driven by an ever encroaching financial need is drawn into murder.
That’s the basic plot, and the book’s focus in on George and his predicament for about 2/3’s of the book, and then at that point, Crofts’ Inspector French enters the scene and the action focuses on the investigation. Antidote to Venom is full of twists and turns–not the least of which is: who is George going to murder? His obnoxious wife, Clarissa? Or his aged Aunt– who has left almost her entire estate to her nephew upon her death? But remember this book is unpredictable, so the crime isn’t the one you expect.
While drawn slowly into George’s life, Crofts shows us exactly how George finds himself on a path towards crime, and as is so typical with a man who considers himself ‘decent,’ and ‘law-abiding,’ George doesn’t start his journey in crime with its conclusion in mind. Instead he takes one step on a slippery moral slope, and gradually finds himself increasingly compromised. It’s fairly easy to have quite a bit of sympathy for George, at least initially, although for me, sympathy wore off as he began wishing his aunt dead:
But really, when people reached a certain age their usefulness was over. And in his opinion she had reached and passed that stage. She could not enjoy her life. If she were to die, what a difference it would make to him!
Of course, George tends to feel bad after these sort of thoughts, but nonetheless, it’s true; his aunt is elderly and ill and once she dies his inheritance will ease all of the financial pressure he feels. Or so he thinks ….
The novel explores the psychological side of murder. George finds himself in a position of thinking that murder is the only acceptable alternative. He knows that he is “faced with one of the major decisions of his life“– an act that cannot be reversed, and yet at the same time he’s trapped and under a great deal of pressure. George can’t confide his problems to anyone and while he rationalizes his acts, he can’t imagine the post-crime burden of guilt or the many places this seemingly perfect murder can go wrong.
Here’s a quote which illustrates how skewed George’s thinking has become. Here he is pre-murder trying to simplify his problems down to a) losing his mistress and facing financial ruin b) murdering some innocent person. And at the same time he avoids the fact that his choice, “the lesser of two evils,” involves the death of an innocent person. Somehow that doesn’t even enter the equation.
The sweat formed on George’s forehead as he considered these alternatives. It was not, he told himself, a question of doing right or wrong; whatever he did would be wrong. It was a choice of two evils. Which was the lesser?
The solution to murder involves discovering 3 essential things: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. In the murder under investigation, the police while sniffing that they are investigating a murder rather than an accidental death, cannot tie all three elements: Motive, Means, and Opportunity to the most likely suspect, and so the inquest closes the case. Then Inspector French from Scotland Yard becomes involved, and the book shifts to his investigation.
All too often when police investigate a past crime, a great deal of the book is given over to the detective’s wordy explanation of exactly how the crime was committed. Not so here. When Inspector French arrives on the scene, he must convince the Birmingham police that his skepticism about the case’s solution has merit, and he argues logically, laying out all possibilities for each step of the crime, so much so, that we can only admire French’s logical and methodical thinking. Once he’s convinced the Birmingham police that his doubts are valid, he moves forward into the investigation, going over the details of the case once more, and instead of sticking with the inquest conclusion, French toys with various ways a murder could have been committed. Character and psychology play important roles for French in any investigation, so he asks himself questions such as: is it likely that a certain person would have acted in such a manner? Who stands to profit from the death? But above all, for French, the solution to a crime is an intellectual exercise, a puzzle to be solved.
Inspector French, a series character, is admirable indeed. A bloodhound on the trail of any murderer, nonetheless, there’s humanity there too:
This was a part of his job which he absolutely loathed. The running down of a criminal was a different matter. There was the intellectual problem, the slow search for facts with which to build up and prove a theory and the excitement of the chase, all throughly interesting, if occasionally somewhat exasperating. But when the affair became personal, when instead of dealing with a factual jigsaw, French found himself bringing terror and despair into human eyes, he wished he was out of it. There was no use reminding himself that his victims had usually done the same thing to someone else and with less cause: he was always distressed by their distress.
Sometimes with detective fiction from this era, class snobbery plays a role, and while it’s true that the less advantaged members of society have their moments of being under suspicion, that suspicion makes perfect sense. The novel’s only weakness is the unconvincing religious redemption at the end. Antidote to Venom, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1938, is fresh and adds a great deal of ingenuity, originality, and craftsmanship to the genre.