Being an avid reader of Golden Age crime fiction I’ve come across a wide range of settings: from trains, planes and automobiles to archaeological digs, theatres, country houses, breweries, safaris, colleges and even toy shops, but Antidote to Venom is my first novel with a zoo for a setting. Prior to this book, the only Crofts novel I had read was The Groote Park Murder (1923), which I was somewhat disappointed with, finding it took a herculean effort to read through the detective’s painstaking investigations. However, I decided to give Crofts another chance after Dolores Gordon-Smith enthusiastically talked about his books at the conference Bodies from the Library, which took place this year.
In a similar vein to Anthony Berkeley Cox’s novel Malice Aforethought (1931) (published under the name Francis Iles), Antidote to Venom is an inverted crime novel, meaning the criminal’s thoughts and feelings are predominantly focused on and the story begins before the crime takes place, so the reader can see the built up towards it. Only a small portion of the book involves Inspector French’s investigation, which for me probably the least enjoyable part.
George Surridge is the anti-hero of the tale and also director of Birmingham Zoo.
The beginning of the story builds up George’s financial and marital troubles, which are heightened when he starts a relationship with another woman, Nancy Weymore. Alongside his gambling, it is also suggested that George has an inability to resist against external pressures, as demonstrated by his courtship of his wife or his own internal temptations. As his problems multiply Crofts shows some insight into the psychological and emotional effects of leading a double life and the selfish nature of George’s love for Nancy begins to reveal itself, where he begins to see other people as obstacles to be removed in order to achieve his own happiness. One such person is his aunt, whose money he will inherit when she dies. His aunt is feeling peaky, but not enough for George’s liking, whose desire for the money becomes ever greater. But this story is not just another tale where a younger relative plans to bump off the rich elderly relative and the twist Crofts’ deploys a third of the way through the novel was definitely a good surprise. Ultimately death occurs and with more than one perpetrator. Even with the murder method Crofts provides sufficient twists and surprises, although given the title, it is evident it will involve snake venom. Venom, a form of poison, is a key theme throughout the text as beyond poison being used in a literal sense; it is also suggested more widely through the poor choices George makes. As the novel progresses, readers can see his mind, morals, values and emotions become poisoned and warped, leading to a corruption of the very happiness he was trying to achieve through crime.
This ties into Crofts’ aims for the novel. As the prettysinister blog records, Crofts planned this novel to be a ‘two-fold experiment’ which ‘attempt[ed] to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively’. The former can be seen in the narrative structure of the novel, yet the latter intention is more pervasive affecting not only the plot but also the characterisation, with Crofts trying to construct not only the downfall of a criminal but also the redemption. Curtis Evans evinces this in his book, Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery (2012). He suggests that Antidote to Venom is ‘an inverted mystery novel that is also an earnest expression of the author’s religious faith’ (p. 251) and that in the thirties Crofts became ‘focused less on complex plotting and more on the portrayal of his characters’ confrontations with temptation and sin,’ (p. 170) with greed being a particular stumbling block.
However, contrary to Catherine Aird’s suggestion in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999) that Golden Age crime writers had ‘little sympathy… [for] the criminal in fiction’ and rarely made much of ‘understanding the actions of the murderer or mitigation of the crime,’ Crofts through his characters does produce some ambiguity over the guilt of the criminal and the police’s involvement in the capturing of. This is partially depicted through George and his own reaction to another’s criminal guilt, but this ambiguity is mostly illustrated through Inspector French. When taking part in an arrest it is noted that ‘this was a part of his job which he absolutely loathed.’ It seems French prefers
‘the intellectual problem, the slow search for facts with which to build up and prove a theory and the excitement of the chase… but when the affair became personal, when instead of dealing with a factual jigsaw, French found himself bringing terror and despair into human eyes, he wished he was out of it.’
This phenomenon is not unique to French as other fictional detectives suffer from it such as Margery Allingham’s Campion. Susan Rowland (2010) suggests that this is because
‘the detective always possesses an-Other, his uncanny double in the murderer, partly because the quarry is the focus of the detective’s desire, his burning mental energy. However, the murderer is also “Other” because in an era of capital punishment, a successful detective is also a killer.’
This is the case for French who in successfully solving the case (even if he does seem to have a number of light bulb moments and a bucket load of luck) ultimately sends someone to their death by hanging, which produces an uncomfortable feeling for him.
Overall, I think this was a good read for the first two thirds of the tale. The enjoyment levels sadly decreased with the arrival of Inspector French whose investigation was fuelled significantly by coincidences and good luck. The narrative style is less engaging when describing French’s investigations, as his investigation procedures, although meticulous in dismantling a supposedly unbreakable alibi did slow the pace of the plot, especially the explanation of the murder method, which included diagrams. On balance I think Crofts does manage to achieve his aims of using inverted and direct story methods, but I think his transformation of George into a penitent was too rushed and therefore less convincing. In addition, I don’t think Crofts has Francis Iles ability to express as well the turbulence of a criminal’s mind in a variety of ways, as poor George does seem to suffer frequently from the condition of icy hands on his heart. I wonder how much Inspector French actually adds to the story and perhaps it might have been a more successful story if it focused further on George’s mental state, as it is he who is the most interesting character.
Rating: 4/5 (Gave it a slightly higher rating, as I did really enjoy the first two thirds of the novel and in many ways the plot was intricately worked with successful twists and surprises. I also enjoyed the setting, which was a refreshing change.)
If you want to read more about this book see: