One of the newer additions to the British Library’s Crime Classics series, Freeman Wills Crofts was a prolific Irish mystery writer of the Golden Age—he wrote around forty novels and collections, of which thirty starred his main series detective, Inspector French of Scotland Yard. Despite that prolific output, he’s one of many now-overlooked mystery writers I’m glad to see the British Library bring back into print. Wills Crofts’ first novel, The Cask, was printed in 1920, though the two now released by the British Library were from later in the Golden Age of Mystery—The Hogsback Mystery from 1933, and Antidote to Venom from 1938, which I’ve seen referred to as two of Crofts’ more important mystery novels. Both will be released by Poison Pen Press in North America on 7 July 2015, and it’s from the publisher that I received an advance review copy.
The most interesting feature of Antidote to Venom is its structure: as an inverted detective novel, it starts out following the criminals and not the detective, dealing with the prelude to murder from the eyes of the guilty. In this case, the guilty is one George Surridge, director of the Birmington Zoo and desperate for money. His marriage is dry and loveless, all due to his perpetual lack of funds. He’s scraped by for years waiting for an inheritance from a wealthy aunt. And when he falls for another woman and takes her up as his mistress, he finds the need for wealth even more pressing—with the inheritance, he can start life anew, dreaming of life in a small cottage with his mistress.
His aunt’s death brings much-needed relief, until George finds that his inheritance is not forthcoming after all—the solicitor Capper has spent it all, and has nothing to offer a distraught George but a cunning plan. For Capper is waiting on an inheritance of his own, from a wealthy but ailing uncle who works at the zoo. With venomous snakes. If George can provide him the poison and dead body of one such snake, Capper will make all of their problems go away—don’t ask about the details, it’ll be better if George doesn’t know for the inquest. And out of desperation, George takes him up on the offer.
It takes a good 75% of the novel before Crofts’ series detective, Inspector French, even appears, and while that seems antithetical it works surprisingly well—it worked for Colombo, didn’t it? French begins to pick and prod at the setup, certain that there’s foul play at hand; I quite enjoy that element of the novel, watching the detective make and discard theories as they piece the case together. Some faulty theories lead to more successful ones, and soon French thinks he’s on the right track, doggedly pursuing this case as his reputation—and Scotland Yard’s—is on the line.
This structure offers a good look at George’s existential woes, but as ambitious as the novel is, I’m not sure Crofts’ writing is able to make the psychological elements work. George is sympathetic, but also came across less as a put-upon everyman and more as a desperate loser gambling everything on a bad bet. It is fascinating to see him put under the microscope, and I think that’s where Antidote to Venom sells the inverted trick—the reader gets a solid feel for George and a good idea of why he turned to crime. And there’s still a strong mystery element, as we discover the trick alongside the brilliant Inspector French—an ingenious method that took some serious thought and skill to pull off, and stands as one of the best of its kind that I’ve read. They don’t make them like this any more—for one, the plot would easily be solved by checking the zoo’s surveillance cameras. For another, George’s behavior in the finale perhaps works best if the reader is of a religious persuasion—-Crofts intended the novel to be a “positive” crime novel, and ends on a much different note than the usual fare.
Antidote to Venom is a novel of historical importance, as its combination of the inverse-mystery and the “direct” detective novel makes it unique in the Golden Age. The mystery is as ingenious as its solution, though the existential angst and the crushing burden of George’s poverty aren’t entirely successful, nor is Crofts’ portrayal of this criminal’s redemption. It remains a fascinating and enjoyable curio, though I think it will appeal most to Golden Age readers drawn to it by its inverted structure. In that department, Crofts was a capable writer who came up with several innovative ideas, and I think it lives up to its reputation.