I’ll admit my shallowness when I say that the first thing that attracted me to the British Library Crime Classics reprint series was their covers, specifically, those of the John Bude tales, which reproduced the beautiful railway travel posters of the 1930s. However, for my first foray into the series, for some reason I chose Freeman Wills Crofts’s 1938 Inspector French mystery, Antidote to Venom. It too has a reasonably attractive cover, but what lies inside the covers was more of a concern.
The premise is an unusual one: the director of the fictional Birmington Zoo, George Surridge, is a man with an uneasily middle-class life. His marriage is devoid of companionship, he drinks rather too much, and he gambles at cards and loses more money than he can afford. But Surridge is a competent administrator in his work at the Zoo, and is respected by his peers, so he buries himself in his work. Further, his salvation – at least from his money problems – is in sight, in the form of a maiden aunt, Miss Peatland, who has promised him a substantial legacy on her death, which grows nearer by the day.
Life is further complicated for George Surridge when he meets and falls in love with an attractive widow, Nancy Weymore. The additional expense of keeping a mistress is almost too much for him, and he feels that he has been saved a terrible fate when his aunt dies at long last. Surridge begins to settle his affairs in expectation of the money from his aunt. But he has failed to count upon another fly in the ointment, in the form of the dishonest solicitor, Capper. Capper has spent all of the stock certificates which made up Miss Pentland’s assets, and gambled the money away on the stock market. George will receive nothing… unless he is willing to aid Capper in the commission of a murder.
What is unusual about the story, and therefore of interest, is the structure. For the first half of the book, the story is told from Surridge’s perspective, and we experience his frustrations at first hand. From the narrative, the reader knows who did the murder, and why, but we do not know how. This is the part which, half-way through the book, Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is brought in to solve. French is portrayed as a man who likes the puzzle aspect of his job, but is less-pleased with the policing part, where he must actually arrest people. He is shown as meticulous, almost plodding, but with a diligent attention to detail that yields results. In fact, it is a foregone conclusion that once he is brought in to aid the Birmington Police, we will learn how the murder was committed and that the killer will be brought to justice (although there is a twist in that regard which I do not wish to spoil for readers).
Crofts was a well-experienced writer by the time that Antidote to Venom was published (his first novel was published in 1920, therefore predating slightly both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers), which is what makes his writing style all the more puzzling. It must be intended as a style of some sort, but the writing strikes the modern ear as clunking and awkward, like reading some of the more staid novels of the 19th century. Unlike Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Crispin, or Carr, to name but five who were writing at the same time, there is a whiff of the distinctly old-fashioned about Crofts’s writing, and his more unfortunate moralizing. It must be granted that he was about twenty years older than these contemporaries (he was born in 1879), but this alone cannot account for the way in which he chose to tell a tale.
Here is an example of what I mean:
French returned to his room with rather mixed feelings. He was by no means sure he had not simply made a fool of himself. It was not his business to interfere where his opinion had not been asked, and now that his urge was satisfied, he wondered why he had done so. Of course, it was true that no one who had carried out a ghastly murder should get off with it, but then he was not a keeper of the country’s morals. However, since Sir Mortimer had accepted his suggestion there couldn’t be so much wrong with it, and in any case the matter was now out of his hands and he need waste no more time over it.
— Antidote to Venom, page 199-200
I’m sorry, but what a lot of waffle. This sort of text, which reads like filler to me and occurs repeatedly through the course of Venom, simply doesn’t stand up against some of the previously-named wordsmiths of the era. Surely, all of Crofts’s writing can’t be this bad?
What does stand out is the interesting setting of the story (I’m hard-pressed to think of any other stories set in zoos, apart from the works of Gerald Durrell), and an intriguingly mechanical method for murder. I can’t be entirely against the story, because it read briskly and did keep my interest, even as I groaned in dismay every time that Crofts decided to go all flowery or, worse still, moralize (the ending, particularly, is cringe-inducing).
So, unfortunately, this is a review which will end in a somewhat open-ended stance, as I find that if I want to do Crofts justice, I’m going to have to read another of his books and compare the story and the writing. Fortunately, British Library Crime Classics has issued another, The Hog’s Back Murder, and for that matter I’m fairly sure that I have a Penguin or two of Crofts lying about somewhere. For the time being, then, let us mark this review as “To Be Continued…” but with a provisional rating of 2.5 stars. This doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the British Library Crime Classics line, which I am determined to keep reading, hunting for gems previously unknown to me. But for Crofts’s novels, I am more cautious. For enthusiasts only.
Reviewed 5 January 2016.
Find your copy of Antidote to Venom, available from booksellers around the world, at Abebooks.com (title links directly to search results at Abebooks).