Antidote to Venom – Freeman Wills Crofts
This is another excellent Freeman Wills Crofts classic from the British Library Crime Classics series, originally published in 1938. It is another inverted detective novel where the reader knows the identity of the murderer from the outset and gets the opportunity to understand matters from their point of view, their thoughts, plans, motives and aspirations. Inevitably, though, their brilliance is not all that they thought it was and they will have made one or more fatal errors which the detective, in this case Crofts’s stalwart, Inspector French, discovers and unravels the mystery. What results is more of a howdunit than a whodunit and much of the interest lies in understanding how they messed it up.
Indeed, it is almost three-quarters into the book that French makes an appearance. He is a meticulous, painstaking detective, one who seems to enjoy the intellectual challenge of cracking a case or the thrill of the chase than bringing the felon to justice. Although we know that French will solve the case, there is a little twist at the end, which I did not see coming nor will I spoil for anyone tempted to pick the book up. The other major twist in the book, which I can allude to, is that the victim of the murder is not the person that the protagonist, George Surridge, initially set out to kill.
Surridge is director of Birmington Zoo, which, inter alia, has a noted collection of snakes. Although holding down a well-paid job, he gambles and is trapped in a loveless marriage. He picks himself up a girlfriend who worsens his financial position. All may not be lost, though, because Surridge is the sole beneficiary of the estate of an aged aunt who is keeping poor health. If only her demise could be accelerated, George’s money problems will be over.
By this time the reader expects the aunt to be the murder victim, possibly becoming a retread of Richard Hull’s The Murder of my Aunt, but no, there is a sudden and unexpected twist. She dies of natural causes and Surridge is going to get his hands on the estate without sullying his hands with any dastardly crime. He begins spending in anticipation of his new wealth, committing to buy a house for his girlfriend. The problem is that his aunt’s solicitor, Mr Capper, has misappropriated the funds and more, although he too is expecting a sizeable legacy from an elderly uncle, Professor Burnaby, who studies snakes at the zoo. If only his demise could be hastened.
The couple hatch up an ingenious plan, involving venom from a snake, to kill the uncle in a way that looks like an unfortunate accident and almost get away with it. Through an astonishing coincidence, the plot is riddled with coincidences, Inspector French is a friend of the brother of the head keeper at the zoo and hears of the incident. His interest is piqued and he sets off to Birmington to investigate and inevitably unravels the truth.
Crofts does a fine job in ratcheting up the tension. Surridge cannot relax throughout the investigation, even though he is convinced that he cannot be implicated in the crime. He is an object of pity and fascination, a man who has lost control of his ability to shape events and his fortune, becoming a person he never thought he would ever be. And French is dogged in his pursuit of the truth, perplexed by how a snake could bite the professor fatally and then end up drowned in a barrel. It all makes for a great, entertaining read.