Thursday, June 7, 2018

“Antidote to Venom” by Freeman Wills Crofts

George Surridge has a problem; actually, he has several. He’s the director of the Birmington Zoo, the most prestigious zoo in the U.K. outside London. It’s an enviable position. But his marriage is increasingly unhappy, he has a small gambling problem, and then he meets Nancy Weymore, a widow whom he finds extremely attractive. All of these things are straining his finances.

And then he has a bit of good fortune. An elderly aunt dies, leaving him her heir. The influx of funds will mean the end of his financial problems and his ability to buy a cottage for Nancy. He encounters only one problem: after starting the expenditures for the cottage, he learns that his aunt’s attorney has embezzled all of the anticipated funds. But the lawyer has a plan, and he convinces George to go along. Unfortunately, the plan involves murder of a most unusual kind – using the venom of a snake.

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957) was first published in 1938 and has been republished as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. Crofts in his day was more popular than Agatha Christie; T.S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler were among his admiring readers, says mystery writer Martin Edwards in the introduction to the book, one of many Crofts wrote in the Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard series.

Freeman Wills Crofts
Most of the story is told from Surridge’s point-of-view. After a coroner’s jury returns a verdict of accidental death, Sturridge believes he and the lawyer have gotten away with the crime, the murder of the lawyer’s uncle using the venom of a viper. But criminal success brings no relief; Sturridge finds himself increasingly afflicted by guilt. The feelings increase as Inspector French, troubled by the verdict of accident, arrives to take the case apart. And he finds something very different has gone on. Edwards points out a fact about Crofts life that shows up in Antidote to Venom. Crofts was deeply religious, and it is religious faith that ultimately plays a critical role in the outcome. 

Antidote to Venom is not a classic “whodunit.” The reader knows what’s happened. Instead, it represents one of better examples of the psychological mystery that was beginning to become popular in Britain in the late 1930s. And it remains a fascinating story.


Top photograph: A scene from the London Zoo in the 1930s.

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