Antidote to Venom (Freeman Wills Crofts)

  • By Freeman Wills Crofts
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938; US: Dodd Mead, 1939
  • Availability: British Library Crime Classics, 2015, introduction by Martin Edwards

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“This book is a two-fold experiment,” the Author’s Note states. “First, it is an attempt to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively.”

By ‘positively’, explains Curtis Evans (Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, 2012), Crofts “wanted to publish a crime novel in which a criminal genuinely repents and is saved literally by the grace of God”. The book is about “the saving, transformative effect of religious faith”.

Crofts, you see, was an Evangelical Christian and a member of the Oxford Group, a Christian association later known as Moral Re-armament. (Its members included the appalling Mary Whitehouse.) And this is a Protestant religious tract disguised as detective fiction, with all the earnest sententiousness Crofts can summon.

George Surridge, director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo, is in a pickle. He married above his social station, and he does not get on with his wife, the disagreeable Clarissa. More, he has fallen for another woman, pretty widow Nancy Weymore. George badly needs money, and eager for his aunt to die; her death would solve his financial problems. But once she is dead, he learns that a rascally solicitor, Capper, has embezzled all her money. Capper suggests that George help him murder his uncle, a scientist experimenting with snakes. All George has to do is provide the venom and a dead snake; he won’t know how the crime was committed.

At first, this “who but not how” approach seems more interesting than the straightforward inverted detective story, The 12.30 from Croydon. Crofts had already combined an inverted and a whodunnit in (the rather good) Mystery on Southampton Water, so he had form. But as an inverted story, it’s underwhelming.

Chief Inspector French doesn’t appear until the last 100 pages. He has one clever detectival leap – the absence of a certain item (ROT13: gur fanxr ynffb END) – but there is little excitement in watching him follow an obvious trail. He shows photographs, he makes routine inquiries, he dabbles in burglary and orders divers to search the river. It’s efficient, but it’s unimaginative. When R. Austin Freeman invented the inverted detective story in The Singing Bone (1912), he made sure Dr. Thorndyke could demonstrate his clever science: the physical clues that prove Oscar Brodski was not hit by a train, the microscopic analysis of dust in “The Wastrel’s Romance”, the seashells and toothmarks in “The Echo of a Mutiny”, or the bloodhounds in “A Case of Premeditation”.

The saving grace is the method (ROT13: n irabz-gvccrq qbbe unaqyr END), one of those ingenious murderous devices that supposedly abound in detective fiction, but are really quite rare. I’ll take the technical detail on faith; the diagrams are incomprehensible. Crofts moves in mysterious ways his murders to perform.

But as for the rest…! Ma foi! There is more character interest than Crofts usually manages, but his descriptions of guilt and remorse feel dug up from a 19th-century Sunday School text about how worldly pleasures are snares that lead sinners astray.

He had obtained money, but had he lost the power to enjoy it? he could still meet Nancy, but had he forfeited the joy of her presence? He had arranged the cottage, but had he jeopardised his home? In short, he saw that he had exchanged financial worry for a moral burden. He felt that to all he did there would now be this gnawing background of distress. Then his mood changed. He. Told himself that these thoughts of conscience were only unreasoning fear: old wives’ tales, nonsense retained in the mind from the false teaching of childhood. In this world, if you wanted anything you had to take it. He needn’t be regretful about what he had done. He had only to banish these morbid imaginings from his mind, and he would be once again sane and happy.

Ch. XIV

To finish, Crofts gives us a sincere but bathetic cover version of Polyeucte. The happy ending is that George confesses and is hanged – but he has opened his heart to Jesus.

For nearly a fortnight George suffered intolerable misery and distress. Then one night, when he was at his very lowest, his thoughts went back to his childhood and his childhood’s teaching. Some old words that he had then learnt recurred to him, about going to Someone and being given rest. And as these echoed in his mind he knew beyond doubt or question that he had been deceiving himself: that there was a God, that good and evil in his life did matter, and that if there was hope for him at all, it was through the Divine Man who had spoken these words.

His prayer and confession had been the first steps to a vital contact with the Divine. Though his sorrow for what he had done remained, he now knew himself to be forgiven, cleaned from his load of guilt, and with a power and confidence to face the future to which he was moving, such as he had never before experienced.

Ch. XXIII

And look! Clarissa is saved, too! “Their precious interview had impressed her profoundly. It had started a train of thought which during these weeks of waiting had led her also to find a contact with the Divine.”

Some critics of the time were nonplussed. “May we suggest to Mr Crofts that if his murderers are to develop an Oxford Group conscience, poor French will be out of a job, and he is far too good to be retired,” wrote the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Marian Wiggin, of the Boston Transcript, cynically wondered: “We particularly enjoyed the conclusion in which everyone, in the last couple of pages, like Mary Pickford found solace in God.  Rogues’ Gallery wonders how often police officers turn to God.”


Blurbs

1938 Hodder & Stoughton

Antidote to Venom shows Freeman Wills Crofts at his best.  It is noteworthy for three special reasons:

  1. Even Crofts, himself a master of the intricate detective novel, has never produced a more ingenious plot.
  2. The background of the Zoo provides an unusual and original setting for an unusual and original crime.
  3. The crime is traced to its source in the mind of the criminal, making him a man so like ourselves that we are left with the uneasy feeling of being potential murderers.

1939 Dodd Mead

The snake house attendant paused before the cage which held the Russell vipers and watched the beautifully marked creatures slowly coiling and twisting themselves into intricate knots.  Suddenly the realisation struck him with sickening intensity.  One of the vipers was missing, missing from its concrete, plate glass den and lurking somewhere on one of the many wooded avenues of the famous Birmington Zoo, ready to deal death to some unsuspecting victim.

When the hastily-organised search party came on the body of old Professor Burnaby and discovered the viper drowned in a nearby water barrel, the whole situation assumed the appearance of a tragic, unfortunate accident.  Before long, however, as it became evident that the snake could not have escaped unaided, a new sinister tone crept into the picture, and only Inspector French with his imaginative thoroughness was able to reveal the diabolical plot.

This is an unusual detective novel.  Set against the varied, colourful atmosphere of a large zoo, Freeman Wills Crofts has contrived his fascinating puzzle with skill and precision.


Contemporary reviews

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 12th November 1938, 190w)

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 12th November 1938): SNAKE BITE

Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts is an old hand.  In Antidote to Venom he explains that he is making “a twofold experiment; first, it is an attempt to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story, and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively”.  It is not altogether clear what Mr. Crofts means by the word “positively”; but the combination of direct and inverted has been tried before, at least once by Mr. Austin Freeman.

The “direct” story tells exactly how George Surridge, director of the Birmingham Corporation Zoo, is tempted after a series of misfortunes to act as accomplice in the murder of an elderly professor.  The professor has been lent or given snakes for his experiments and he is found apparently bitten by a snake which he has stolen from the zoo.  In the second or “inverted” part of the story Inspector Joseph French slowly but surely proves the fact of murder and finds the murderer.  French’s extraction of the clues, the first one of exceeding slenderness, which enable him to unravel a very well constructed murder, holds the attention of the reader of the first part; and the only complaint which might reasonably be made is that since the nature of the solution is broadly known the detection necessarily seems a little leisurely.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (21 November 1938): MOONSHINE AND MURDER And the Oxford Group Enters into a Crime Story

VENOM AND VENGEANCE

George Surridge, director of a provincial zoo, is hard pressed for money. He has been gambling a bit, his wife has been accustomed to money, and is petulant through the lack of it. Domestic unhappiness leads to George’s infidelity, and his passion for the other lady increases his outlays. Then a relative dies, leaving him several thousand pounds. Everything seems all right, when he discovers that her lawyer has embezzled the lot. Then Capper, the lawyer, heir of a rich old lawyer who has been working at the zoo with snake venoms, suggests the murder of the old man by poison, George to procure the venom, the rest of the plan to be carried out by Capper. The scheme is ingenious, and the coroner’s jury return a verdict of accidental death. But a remark by a zoo attendant is carried to London, and reaches Inspector French’s ears, which instantly prick up. So the case is reopened, and French at his best does some marvellous reconstruction which ends successfully, though not quite as he could have wished. George, smitten by remorse, anticipates arrest by surrender, and the story closes in an atmosphere almost of sanctity. Incidentally, may we suggest to Mr Crofts that if his murderers are to develop an Oxford Group conscience, poor French will be out of a job, and he is far too good to be retired yet.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 22nd November 1938): A sign of the vitality the detective novel is showing at the present moment is the willingness to experiment displayed by many writers in the genre, even though the older type of tale, of corpse, suspects, and few or no extraneous interests can still prove itself, in the right hands, the equal of the best.

Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts, who won his reputation by the more familiar type of story, makes in Antidote to Venom the psychology of the criminal the chief interest, showing first the slow, moral deterioration of a very ordinary man, one so like most of us in most respects that it is with a kind of fascinated horror we see him yielding to temptation under a repeated strain to which we feel we ourselves might also yield.  And then, the crime committed, we are shown the awful burden of remorse, a remorse that not even suicide, but only confession, can alleviate.  The background of the tale is a very provincial zoo, described in interesting detail.  The first part of the book tells of the commission of the crime, though we are left in ignorance of the method.  In the second part our old friend Inspector French notices the one unexplained yet vital detail the local police overlook—and if the reader does not overlook it too then he is entitled to give himself loud congratulations.  From that starting-point French gradually works his way to the truth.  The tale is as ingenious and well constructed as any Mr. Crofts has ever devised, and is informed, one feels, with a more marked emotional strength.

Birmingham Gazette (23 November 1938): What an extraordinarily satisfactory writer of detective stories Mr. Crofts is! This latest example of his cool, detailed, ingenious and inexorable working out of a problem is nearly as good as his masterpiece The 12.30 from Croydon. As in that fascinating story we know all along who did the murder, though not exactly how he did it; and the interest is first in watching a normal man succumb to a series of unfortunate temptations that finally bring him to the gallows, and secondly in seeing his apparently impregnable defences crumble before the patient ingenuity of Inspector French.

Though the setting of the problem is the highly dramatic one of the poison snake’s house in a zoo, it is the lack of melodrama that makes this an impressive book and one for the connoisseur.

Daily Herald (P.E.H., 1 December 1938): Freeman Wills Crofts also [like Gavin Douglas in The Search for the Blue Sedan] uses the viewpoint of a criminal in Antidote to Venom, reserving the exact means of a most ingenious murder and the method of detection for the mystification of the reader.

Leicester Evening Mail (5 December 1938): Inspector French has a tough job to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of old Professor Burnaby, which was to all intents and purposes due to an accidental snake bite. Readers, being taken behind the scenes by Freeman Wills Crofts in Antidote to Venom have the advantage of him, but this thriller, staged against the unusual background of c provincial zoo, is not any the less absorbing because we know beforehand who is guilty. It bears out very ingeniously Inspector Hornleigh’s dictum that every criminal makes a fatal slip.

Observer (Torquemada, 18th December 1938): Freeman Wills Crofts has made an interesting experiment in Antidote to Venom; he has attempted to combine an “inverted” and a “straight” detective story.  A “straight” detective story is told in the conventional order, and in it the reader, unless he can solve the problem himself, has to wait on the detective for revelation; in an “inverted” tale, as it has been named by Austin Freeman, whose work provides the best examples of it, we first watch the crime being committed, and then watch the investigation.  Crofts makes his attempt at a combination thus: for the first two-thirds of the book he concentrates our sympathetic attention on poor George Surridge, Director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo, lets us see him at strife with beasts more deadly than any under his charge, and, finally, shows him to us stealing a snake and becoming accessory before the fact to a murder which may steady his own toppling fortunes.  Then, for the last hundred pages, our attention shifts to our good friend Chief-Inspector French, by whom the case is almost fortuitously reopened; old facts take on a new significance, actions appear more clearly, the murderer commits suicide, and George confesses.  The trouble with this final period of French polishing is that while we know the guilty party and, therefore, do not keep the mental stretch of a “straight” tale, we do not know where and how he planted his snake-imitating gadget (George was not allowed to know), and, therefore, have none of the sympathetic qualms of an “inverted” tale as the truth is neared.  We fall between hare and hounds, and the killer’s device, though worthy of Houdini’s workshop, does not make up for our double loss of suspense.  Whatever the reader may think of the mixture of types or the technical device made use of in Antidote to Venom, he will, I am sure, regard the book with the deepest interest as a portent, as the first detective story to be written frankly, from title to final paragraph, as a sermon or spiritual tract: “venom” is the unshared consciousness of sin, and George finds the “antidote” in the condemned cell when, in the highest sense of the phrase, he comes clean.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th December 1938, 120w): We may feel that Mr. Crofts has not made the psychological interest intense enough to justify the comparative lack of detective subtlety, and that he underlines his moral too heavily at the end: but the story has a genuine novelty of treatment that must commend it.

Illustrated London News (21 January 1939): Now for detection proper. I have four examples this month, three by experts, and the prize must go, without any doubt whatever, to Mr. Crofts. He is always good, but of late he has been suffering from stolidity. In Antidote to Venom he shakes this off, and rises to the height of his talent. We see the crime from the point of view of the accomplice: an ingenious idea, combining the thrill of the “direct method” with the thrill of investigation. For Surridge knows what was done, but can’t imagine how it was done. And the way Inspector French noses out every detail should be a warning to us all to abstain from crime.

Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 28th January 1939, 110w): We particularly enjoyed the conclusion in which everyone, in the last couple of pages, like Mary Pickford found solace in God.  Rogues’ Gallery wonders how often police officers turn to God.

Sat R of Lit (4th February 1939, 40w): Peerless.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 5th February 1939, 220w): Those readers of detective stories who demand hard-boiled characters, swift action and snappy dialogue may as well pass this one by, for this is an Inspector French story, and neither the inspector nor his creator is ever in a hurry.  There are other readers who like a story that is carefully and logically worked out, with due attention to every little detail that is pertinent to the narrative.  It is for such readers that Freeman Wills Crofts writes.

Booklist (15th March 1939)

Springfield Republican (2nd July 1939, 140w)

Daily Mail: The Author who goes from strength to strength with every book he writes.  The construction is flawless.


Other reviews

7 thoughts on “Antidote to Venom (Freeman Wills Crofts)

  1. Of all the various inverted mysteries by Crofts (I think the only one I haven’t read yet is Anything to Declare), I find this to be the least satisfying by far. A lot of the reason lies with that tone and the themes you describe which feel incredibly heavy-handed. A real shame because the crime method is quite inventive.

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    1. Yes, I like the method, and the characterization in the first section is surprisingly good. Crofts does tend, though, to tell rather than show!

      But I feel there’s not enough to the inverted detective story here. For it to work, there needs to be either something novel in the detection (which Freeman delivers in spades) or a twist (which Iles, Wade, and Hull give, although they’re not inverted, properly speaking).

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  2. I remember going into this with the understanding that it was Crofts’ heavy-handed moral exercise in faith in crime fiction…and, I dunno, the themes you outline above aren’t incorrect, they just didn’t strike me as hard as you’ve made clear they must be. Maybe, it being only my second-ever Crofts, I was simply pleased to find that he wasn’t the complete dullard I’d been told to expect.

    But, yeah, I also won’t deny that he wrote much stronger books and, were I coming to this having read his work in order, I probably wouldn’t be as enamoured of it as I was before. But, hey, it’s the book that convinced me FWC was worth exploring further, so I’ll never be completely down on it 🙂

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      1. I’m still four or five books away from that one. I’ll be interested to see what it takes for me to encounter my first actively bad Crofts novel; Death on the Way is the weakest one yet, but even that had some clever ideas (or, er, maybe just idea). But it stands to reason I’ll have to dislike something in his near-forty books…

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