#231: Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote to VenomThe reputation for being something of an interminable bore that still dogs Freeman Wills Crofts some 60 years after his death wants for evidence in Antidote to Venom.  We’re about halfway through when the murder occurs, by which point you’ve had not only a highly sympathetic portrait of the central man in the affair, but also the convincing use of minor characters to create the situation in a way that relies on coincidence without feeling forced, an allusion to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and two — count ’em — legitimate jokes.  It is spry, focussed, beautifully rich in intrigue and heartbreak, and balances its inverted and traditional elements perfectly.  And when the investigation starts…oh, boy, are you in for a treat.

Clearly Crofts feels a missionary zeal regarding that eponymous venom, since through this chapter headings (Venom: In the Family, Venom: In the Office, Venom: Through the Eye, etc) he seeks out poison and corruption in a great many forms and applies himself to the problems they conspire to create — unsatisfying marriages, thwarted ambition, greed and inequality, unfaithful hearts…a glance down the contents page alone will give you a hint that Crofts has something on his mind here.  Other reviews have named the victim (wisely, Martin Edwards forebears from doing so in his introduction), but as they’re not pegged until after about 100 pages I’d recommend going in ignorant of this to watch how the whole thing unspools — it really brings home the character flaws and motives for the course taken.

George Surridge, director of Birmington Zoo (presumably a stand-in for Birmingham, which is how I read it for the first two chapters), is steadily worn on by Fate into helping commit a murder.  This much you may know, and the way Crofts breaks down the man’s innate horror at the mere idea of such an act — “If her death was too much delayed–could it not be–accelerated?”, he reflects at one early point, almost bent double with self-reproach — and gradually brings him round to complicity in the scheme is masterfully handled.  You know it’s coming, otherwise what’s the purpose of the book, but the pace never rushes, and Crofts builds up a rich and nuanced portrait of the man and his problems.

Cannily, however, Surridge is kept in the dark over certain elements of the death, and so while he and his accomplice are known to us, the nature of how the deed was achieved is what Chief Inspector Joseph French must figure out in the final third.  Now, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime isn’t wrong when she says that French strikes her as something of a dull fish, but there’s something fascinating about Crofts’ macro-detection which almost veers into the dull and yet remains delightful reading.  It sort of reminded me of the Detection Club collection Six Against the Yard (1936) in its obsession over tiny detail, with Superintendent Cornish there sharing more than just a location-based name with French here (also, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that Crofts’ ‘The Parcel’ in that book was pretty watertight, am I?).

Some revealing turns of phrase enliven both the wider cast — the nigh-watchman Cochrane dismissed as “a good average man” just about made my day — and the ruminations of French on the crime itself:

The man no doubt wanted the money that was coming to him, but which delayed to exasperatingly in making its appearance.  As Nature has failed in shuffling off [the victim]’s mortal coil, Art must come to her aid.

And a particular surprise is how sympathetically Surridge’s wife Clarissa emerges.  Not presented as an especially likeable character from the off, I was caught completely unaware by a moment in chapter 6 where I suddenly felt so deeply and earnestly for the woman — I promised you heartbreak above, and I’m not rescinding that claim.

The eventual resolution of the murder is very, very clever; for not only devising that but also providing diagrams to illustrate its efficacy I’m glad that I was never given the chance to get on the wrong side of Freeman Wills Crofts.  It’s true that perhaps French demonstrates something rather too keen a sense of perception at times, with the rigorous deconstruction of The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) here replaced with the occasional jump of simply knowing that something was relevant and putting the correct spin on it immediately, but in fairness he also follows enough blank trails and runs into enough walls to stop him being a crime-solving Professor X.  If a little too much faith is given to his abilities at times…well, remember Six Against the Yard, and how a real policeman showed himself capable of this sort of thing.

So, is Crofts the bore of lore?  I deplore the corps that’s so sure his books are a chore; if you’re keeping score, it’s not top drawer, but I implore you to procure this and at least a couple more as its premature to be too cocksure.  And when there’s this much to enjoy…frankly, encore!

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

Freeman Wills Crofts novels in the British Library Crime Classics series:

Mystery in the Channel (1931) [see TomCat’s review]
The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933)
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934) [see Guy Savage’s review]
Antidote to Venom (1938)

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I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category A Tree.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Murder in Black and White as both involve a character conducting an extra-marital affair.

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16 thoughts on “#231: Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts

  1. PS I should fess up and say I have given this, and other in the BL range as presents to friends and family, but have yet to actually read one myself. I’ll probably stars with one of Martin’s anthologies, which are always excellent value but will get there, honest mate 🙂

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    • I can believe that Crofts is very much the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: when he’s bad he’s horrid. I’m grateful to you for taking the bullet of PPS, because I know that’s one to leave for a later day; given his newfound availability, I’m hoping there will be many more happy hours with FWC to be reported on this blog, so keep an eye out for anything that might sound promising.

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  2. Had a feeling you would probably love the Inspector French parts which I loathed so much, but definitely concur with the strength of the book leading up to the murder. I have tried to like French, honest! But I just don’t think we’re a book match.

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    • There’s a noticeable change in tone when French hits the scene, which makes me appreciate how deliberately dull he is: Crofts shows himself to be a damn fine writer here, and the Ratiocinations of Joseph French, Esq. are doubtless designed to reflect his plodding, exhaustive nature. But, yeah, he can be exhausting as well — I had to leave it a while after Hog’s Back, because the greater amount of time spent with him there was simply knackering…!

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  3. Like you I enjoyed ‘Hog’s Back Murder’, and so I was interested to see what you would make of ‘Antidote to Venom’. I generally shy away from inverted mysteries – I can’t quite say I dislike them as I don’t think I’ve read many, or even any. The thought of knowing who the culprit is seems to defeat the purpose of reading the book in the first place. Then again I shoot myself in the foot, because I recall praising the Higashino novels! But let me not open a can of worms…

    I have a few Crofts novels sitting on my Kindle and on my shelf – I should pick one up sooner rather than later. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    • A few authors played round with the inverted mystery, making it — always mindful of spoilers — perhaps not as inverted as it first seemed, let’s say. That can be quite good fun, though they’re often rather easy to see through with the benefit of others ripping them off for the last 80 years.

      I think the Inverted Mystery was also the first proper step on the road to the separation of the detective novel and the crime novel: inversion is a clear fork in the road, and follow that divergence for long enough and you end up with the study of the criminal and his situation turning into the study of the crime and its meaning. In this regard I shouldn’t really like them, but I always enjoy them.

      Leo Bruce’s Case for Sergeant Beef is a good example: the superbly-named Wellington Chickle plans to commit a spontaneous murder and, inevitably, it becomes hilariously obvious to anyone who looks that he’s behaving weirdly and drawing loads of attention to himself…except that he thinks he’s some sort of genius who’s allowed for every eventuality and is miles ahead of everyone. Very funny. And a very clever novel, to boot.

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      • “A few authors played round with the inverted mystery, making it — always mindful of spoilers — perhaps not as inverted as it first seemed, let’s say.”
        This would apply to The Norwich Victims by Francis Beeding.

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    • Indeed, it was your enthusiastic championing of this that made me start here with my return to Crofts rather than either of the any currently available. So thanks for the steer! More will follow…

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