Antidote to Venom is an example of a crime fiction sub-genre that I have absolutely fallen in love with over the past year: the inverted crime novel.
While I had been aware that there were mystery stories written from the perspective of the criminal, in the past year I have come to read several really excellent examples of this form, several of which are from this range of British Library Crime Classics. When written well, this allows the reader to experience the crime from the perpetrator’s perspective, understand their decision making and watch them sweat as the detective seems to get closer and closer. As the reader knows who did the crime and how, the question they must consider is just how the detective will manage to piece everything together.
Our criminal in this book is George Surridge, the director of the Birmington Zoo. At the start of the novel we learn that he is trapped in a marriage that has turned loveless and cold because he and his wife are unable to afford their lifestyle on his small salary. George feels sure that if only he could receive a promised inheritance from his Aunt, all of his problems would be solved…
A recurring theme of the inverted mystery form is that the events begin to spiral out of the murderer’s control, forcing increasingly reckless actions. When George meets a sweet and charming young woman he falls hopelessly in love with her and ends up making her his mistress, only exacerbating his financial woes. Ultimately these pressures all build on George and push him to commit murder in the hopes of staving off ruin and starting a new life for himself.
Crofts’ approach to writing is extremely methodical and, at times, seems to be a little ponderous and heavy-handed. This is particularly true of the end of the book which incorporates some spiritual reflection that can feel a little preachy and heavy-handed but the conclusion of the novel benefits from the clear and careful buildup as Wills is able to clearly explain to the reader what has happened and why.
George struck me as a convincing character, even if his plan for dispatching his victim seems ludicrously convoluted. He does some very grubby things in the course of this narrative, not least committing murder, yet I could understand his feelings of hopelessness and empathize with his desire to feel loved and a sense of affection.
The scheme that he utilizes to dispatch his victim is rather ingenious and quite memorable. It is certainly an original enough scheme that it threatens to stump Crofts’ series investigator, Inspector French, who finally shows up in the narrative’s final third to attempt to piece things together by being incredibly methodical and diligent.
The author, Freeman Wills Crofts, has something of a reputation as being quite a dull writer which I think is not particularly fair. I certainly have found several of his stories to be quite exciting and to be based on some interesting ideas. Yet while I think that descriptor is unfairly applied to the writer, I certainly think it can be used about his series detective.
I find it quite mystifying that a character such as Inspector French managed to appear in such a large number of books and yet seems so devoid of personality. While there is no questioning his brilliance at solving mysterious murders, I never feel he has a life beyond the narratives he gets caught up in. Here it is interesting to observe how he works to piece this case together when the murder method seemed so foolproof.
So, if the writing can be ponderous and the investigator is a bore, why do I like this book? Firstly, I think that the zoo setting is fun and quite memorable and I liked the way the zoo itself figures into the crime that is committed.
Secondly, George is an interesting and complex character. He does a terrible thing in the course of the story and yet we understand part of what has driven him to that place. While I think the elements of the ending reflecting issues of faith are heavy-handed, I did appreciate that Crofts is trying to introduce some ideas and a process of introspection for a character that are quite unusual in the genre.
Finally, the concept of the crime here is rather clever and it is the sort that sticks in the head. I was quite impressed by the way George attempts to set up the crime scene to hide his own involvement and I was curious to see how French would seek to piece things together.
Is it Crofts best work? No. Nor do I consider it to be even his best inverted mystery. Still, the story is quite pleasing in spite of its flaws and I resolved on completing the book that I would try to give French another shot soon.
11 thoughts on “Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts”
I think we agree on almost every point here. I found Surridge a particularly well-realised presence in this story, given much more depth than the essential motive necessitates and backed into a corner by terrible circumstances that you really feel, The zoo, too, while never overwhelming things, is neatly and compactly worked in, and there’s a great sense of place as a result.
French is dull, there’s no getting around that, but in a way I find him more enjoyable when he’s on page for the majority of the plot — I think Crofts builds up the surrounding stories so well that it’s almost a shame to be pulled away from them to witness French’s investigation. Mainly I just think Crofts’ intent was to show what could be achieved by an honest, hard-working plodder devoid of moments of inspirational genius or esoteric knowledge; the more intelligent speculation and quiet putting together French does, the more I like him — see my review of The Sea Mystery for best results!
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I am happy to hear that the more traditionally structured French stories make the character more enjoyable as I have several sitting in my to read pile. In spite of his lack of flash as a character, I did enjoy the way he figures out how the crime is achieved here.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts JJ!
His lack of flash is one of the things I really enjoy. Crofts wants to simply show you a process of rigorous elimination, and doesn’t require Wimsey’s bleedin’ affectations, what, not — harrumph! — Fell’s grandiloquence. Just a guy thinking things through and playing the odds. It’s wonderful to watch.
It’s certainly an interesting approach to take. It does make me think of those less than great mysteries featuring more memorable characters that are rescued only by our affection for or interest in the sleuth. It should certainly make it easier to judge the puzzle on its own merits.
I really enjoyed this book until French turns up, like you enjoying George and the zoo setting. I just can’t stand French though! He is so dull and boring and never does investigations in an interesting way (still trying to recover from one of his mysteries where he spends ages trying to track down where a parking ticket came from, which I think was the same book where he witters on about the wonders of a new road).
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I am fairly sure that I have been stuck at parties with men like French which I guess speaks to the everyman vibe Crofts is trying to establish.
If you didn’t like the French sequence here, he fares a little better in the 12:30 From Croydon, principally because most of his investigation happens without the principal character’s knowledge.
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