Back in March, I wrote about Anthony Berkeley’s engaging Jumping Jenny (1933), a fine example of the ‘inverted mystery’ genre, where the identity of the murderer is known to the reader (but not the investigators of the crime) at an early stage. Originally published in 1938, Antidote to Venom is another mystery in this tradition — and if anything, I think it’s even better than the Berkeley, especially for those of us who enjoy crime fiction with a psychological edge. The novel starts by focusing on events from the perpetrator’s perspective, showing us how easy it is for a seemingly ordinary, law-abiding man to be drawn into criminal activities when circumstances force his hand…
The novel is set in and around Birmington Zoo in the Midlands, which I assume is a thinly disguised stand-in for the Birmingham enclosure. George Surridge, the Zoo’s director, has got himself into a bit of a fix. Trapped in a loveless marriage to the rather prickly Clarissa, George has been drawn into habitual gambling, an addiction that has left him struggling to pay off his debts. The one bright spot in his life is Nancy, a likeminded woman he meets one day at the Zoo. Additional furtive meetings subsequently ensue, and before long, George finds himself embroiled in a steady affair, desperately dreaming of a more relaxed life with Nancy in a chocolate-box cottage nearby.
As his troubles mount, George finds himself thinking of his Aunt Lucy, a frail, elderly woman with a sizable portfolio of investments. George knows that he is likely to inherit the bulk of Lucy’s estate on her death – she has made her intentions very clear in this respect. If only she would hurry up and die, George’s money worries would be over. He even finds himself toying with the idea of murder, however ghastly that might appear…
George was filled with horror when he realised just what he had been thinking. Why, that would be—he could scarcely bring himself to frame the word—that would be murder! Good God, how dreadful! Hastily he banished the thought.
But in spite of all his efforts, it came back. It grew, not less hateful, but more familiar. He toyed with the idea, wondering how such a thing might be done, then again assured himself with vehemence that nothing in heaven or earth would ever induce him to be guilty of such a hideous crime.
Still, the horrible suggestion lurked in the recesses of his mind… (p. 47)
Luckily for George, Aunt Lucy dies peacefully in her sleep without any sinister interventions, much to his relief. However, when George meets Lucy’s solicitor to discuss the details of his inheritance, he gets the shock of his life. It turns out that Capper, the rather shifty solicitor handling the estate, has embezzled the proceeds of Lucy’s investments, leaving George penniless with little hope of compensation, even if he goes to the police.
The only solution, as far as Capper sees it, is a cunning plan that requires George to assist in the murder of Capper’s uncle, a wealthy but poorly Professor who dabbles in research at the Zoo. (Naturally, Capper stands to benefit financially from his uncle’s death.) All George needs to do is provide Capper with some venom and a dead snake, and then the solicitor will do the rest. In fact, the less George knows about the murder the better – any pleas of ignorance of the deed itself will be all the more convincing if true. So, when Capper assures George that his plan is foolproof, the latter somewhat reluctantly agrees…
George felt terribly upset. Capper’s scheme seemed safe—for him. If the theft of the securities did not come out—and there was absolutely no reason why it should—no suspicion could possibly attach to him. And he would not commit the murder: in fact, he would know nothing about it. His part would be limited to quite a harmless action. True, he would be taking a snake which did not belong to him, but surely in all these years he had put in enough extra work at the Zoo to balance that? (p. 111)
In the following weeks, Capper enacts his plan with George playing his part as agreed — and not long afterwards, Professor Burnaby (Capper’s uncle) is found dead from a snake bite, just as Capper had planned.
Due to his fragile state of mind and ill health, the Professor’s death is judged to have been an accident, and the case is duly closed. However, when Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector French hears of the incident via a relative, his suspicions are aroused. It seems a particularly puzzling detail has been overlooked, suggesting foul play as opposed to an accident. So, when French offers his assistance to the Birmington police, the case is reopened, and a more thorough investigation ensues…
While the slow-burn nature of Antidote to Venom might frustrate some readers – it’s only in the final third of the novel that CI French gets involved – I thoroughly enjoyed the story’s pace and its focus on the build-up. What Crofts does very well here is to explore George as a character, giving readers a good insight into the pressures that force him to act. While Nancy is fairly lightly sketched – little more than a cipher in fact – the dilemma that George must deal with is very well portrayed.
The detecting, when it comes, is most enjoyable. French is a very likeable detective – smart, determined and inclusive, keen to work collaboratively with the Birmington Police to secure a successful outcome. The details of the ‘kill’ itself are devilishly clever – not something I would have worked out for myself without French’s hypothesis, but perfectly feasible nonetheless.
The novel ends on a redemptive note with George reflecting on the folly of his ways. While Crofts’ desire to introduce a moral dimension to the story is likely to divide readers, the brevity of this element stops it from being too heavy-handed.
So, in summary, this is a most enjoyable mystery/character study with much to recommend it – I’m really glad I picked this one up!
Antidote to Venom is published by the British Library; personal copy.