The reputation for being something of an interminable bore that still dogs Freeman Wills Crofts some 60 years after his death wants for evidence in Antidote to Venom. We’re about halfway through when the murder occurs, by which point you’ve had not only a highly sympathetic portrait of the central man in the affair, but also the convincing use of minor characters to create the situation in a way that relies on coincidence without feeling forced, an allusion to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and two — count ’em — legitimate jokes. It is spry, focussed, beautifully rich in intrigue and heartbreak, and balances its inverted and traditional elements perfectly. And when the investigation starts…oh, boy, are you in for a treat.
Clearly Crofts feels a missionary zeal regarding that eponymous venom, since through this chapter headings (Venom: In the Family, Venom: In the Office, Venom: Through the Eye, etc) he seeks out poison and corruption in a great many forms and applies himself to the problems they conspire to create — unsatisfying marriages, thwarted ambition, greed and inequality, unfaithful hearts…a glance down the contents page alone will give you a hint that Crofts has something on his mind here. Other reviews have named the victim (wisely, Martin Edwards forebears from doing so in his introduction), but as they’re not pegged until after about 100 pages I’d recommend going in ignorant of this to watch how the whole thing unspools — it really brings home the character flaws and motives for the course taken.
George Surridge, director of Birmington Zoo (presumably a stand-in for Birmingham, which is how I read it for the first two chapters), is steadily worn on by Fate into helping commit a murder. This much you may know, and the way Crofts breaks down the man’s innate horror at the mere idea of such an act — “If her death was too much delayed–could it not be–accelerated?”, he reflects at one early point, almost bent double with self-reproach — and gradually brings him round to complicity in the scheme is masterfully handled. You know it’s coming, otherwise what’s the purpose of the book, but the pace never rushes, and Crofts builds up a rich and nuanced portrait of the man and his problems.
Cannily, however, Surridge is kept in the dark over certain elements of the death, and so while he and his accomplice are known to us, the nature of how the deed was achieved is what Chief Inspector Joseph French must figure out in the final third. Now, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime isn’t wrong when she says that French strikes her as something of a dull fish, but there’s something fascinating about Crofts’ macro-detection which almost veers into the dull and yet remains delightful reading. It sort of reminded me of the Detection Club collection Six Against the Yard (1936) in its obsession over tiny detail, with Superintendent Cornish there sharing more than just a location-based name with French here (also, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that Crofts’ ‘The Parcel’ in that book was pretty watertight, am I?).
Some revealing turns of phrase enliven both the wider cast — the nigh-watchman Cochrane dismissed as “a good average man” just about made my day — and the ruminations of French on the crime itself:
The man no doubt wanted the money that was coming to him, but which delayed to exasperatingly in making its appearance. As Nature has failed in shuffling off [the victim]’s mortal coil, Art must come to her aid.
And a particular surprise is how sympathetically Surridge’s wife Clarissa emerges. Not presented as an especially likeable character from the off, I was caught completely unaware by a moment in chapter 6 where I suddenly felt so deeply and earnestly for the woman — I promised you heartbreak above, and I’m not rescinding that claim.
The eventual resolution of the murder is very, very clever; for not only devising that but also providing diagrams to illustrate its efficacy I’m glad that I was never given the chance to get on the wrong side of Freeman Wills Crofts. It’s true that perhaps French demonstrates something rather too keen a sense of perception at times, with the rigorous deconstruction of The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) here replaced with the occasional jump of simply knowing that something was relevant and putting the correct spin on it immediately, but in fairness he also follows enough blank trails and runs into enough walls to stop him being a crime-solving Professor X. If a little too much faith is given to his abilities at times…well, remember Six Against the Yard, and how a real policeman showed himself capable of this sort of thing.
So, is Crofts the bore of lore? I deplore the corps that’s so sure his books are a chore; if you’re keeping score, it’s not top drawer, but I implore you to procure this and at least a couple more as it’s premature to be too cocksure. And when there’s this much to enjoy…frankly, encore!
Freeman Wills Crofts novels in the British Library Crime Classics series: