George Surridge is in a bit of a pickle. Firstly, his relationship with his wife Clarissa has deteriorated considerably, and with every day she seems to become more and more belligerent. Secondly, he has a bit of an issue with gambling, leading to debts piling up, presenting an urgent need for constant funds, and lastly, he has just begun an affair with a young woman, and while he is head over heels in love, hiding the affair and keeping his mistress satisfied is something else entirely. Of course, money is something that could appease all of these woes, and George begins to look towards his elderly aunt, waiting for her death in order to gain a substantial inheritance. Now, given the circumstances, one option is glaringly obvious as a way to end his troubles, cold blooded murder.
With that, I stop my description of the story, as there are enough twists following this general set up that i would find it very spoilerish to describe them in any more detail.
First off, I have a somewhat embarrassing secret to share. I’ve never read an inverted detective story. After your allotted minute of gasping and disbelief, let me explain. Inverted detective stories also had an appeal to me, but in a way also dissuaded me. Most weren’t impossible crimes, the genre that I was and am horribly in love with, and there was always this idea in the back of my mind that many would turn into psychological drivel, focusing on the mental state of the murderer without any focus on the crime itself and its investigation. However, in an attempt to diversify my Golden Age reading, I decided to take the plunge, and so set out to find a acclaimed inverted mystery to read, finally settling on Antidote to Venom.
Crofts has a reputation as a boring and barely readable author, the ultimate cure to insomnia for some. But recently, he’s entered a revival period, with many a reader discovering that he isn’t all that bad, and that he may even be, gasp, a decent writer and plotter! Crofts was the prime target for my next read, and given how he had several inverted stories to his name, I decided to take the dive.
The inverted story itself is quite a unique concept, but as I found out, Venom isn’t a fully inverted one, and is more of a hybrid. While we understand who has committed the crime from its formulation, we do not exactly know how the crime has been committed or what the entire picture is. In a way, its a mixture of the classic detective story with the more niche inverted one. Crofts does it excellently here, he sets up our protagonist in a sympathetic light, and we fully gain an understanding of his motivations and who he is as a person, all while watching him attempt to rationalize his misdeeds in an attempt to escape moral and physical punishment. Reading the perspective of the criminal, and watching them plot and conduct their scheme was surprisingly enjoyable, instead of a long denountment at the end unveiling everything, you get to fully be immersed in the crimes more minute and major details. It’s fun, and a experience that stays with you for a while.
There is horror in the domestic throughout this story. Once the murder has occurred, we watch as paranoia wanes and grows within the mind of the killer, we witness him become fearful of his surroundings, watch him attempt to cover his tracks, and we see his hope and love for live fluctuate as it all comes crashing down. The normal things in life, a whisper you can’t fully make out, a creak on the staircase, a rustling in the bushes, they all become accentuated as the story progresses, revealing the true fear that the murderer has in his heart.
And while Crofts does take a more psychological look at the characters, that does not lead to the mystery being forsaken. Twists are common, with us feeling happy for a character one minute before a revelation brings it crashing down, etc, etc. You never quite feel like you know what’s going on in its entirety, leaving a delicious sense of the unknown to blanket the book as it chugs along. Crofts also creates an ingenious murder method to suit the stories major crime, and while it requires a diagram, it still has a bit of simplicity due to its development from nature’s own work.
My favorite part might have been when Inspector French finally appears about two-thirds through the book. We get a glimpse into his mind and we see how he resolves his crimes. The picking apart of clues, chasing down of leads, and the deductions, usually swept aside and never discussed, take full center here as we see the meticulous work a policeman puts into his craft. Watching French create a case against the killer was both exciting and enthralling, and though it was all quite rushed in the end, it still satisfied.
The biggest surprise may have been the fact that Crofts has a good writing style and characters that aren’t cardboard thin! Everything is very fluid, and Crofts controls everything seamlessly, directing it where it needs to go while never feeling clunky or boring. Rather than curing insomnia, it inspires it, making you stay up at night in order to fit in another chapter or two. Crofts creates characters who we can all emphasize with, and he changes our expectations about certain one’s as the story progresses. I personally felt horribly for Clarissa and Nancy, the two main females in George’s life, whose suffering throughout the story, before it, and after it all feeling real and raw to me, ending up with a certain attachment growing to them. George is the most fascinating character, in a limbo between pure evil and misguided attempts at making his life better. You either sympathize and root for him, or you frankly don’t like him for his apparent weakness and the evil that he does.
Venom is the most prominent aspect of the narrative here. It slowly seeps into George’s life in the beginning, and has flooded his life by the end of it all. Venom represents what George has opened himself up too, and what has driven him to do what he has done, with every chapter showcasing some form of it. An antidote is eventually prescribed in the last few pages, though whether it be justice or religiosity is something that is open to interpretation. We get something of a happy ending after all, with a powerful interaction between Clarissa and George closing everything off, and the final sentence almost soothes the soul.
Is Freeman Wills Crofts a dullard of the first degree? This jurors verdict; Not Guilty! While this necessarily isn’t a “perfect” mystery novel, it utilizes a unique sub-genre well and debunks the myth that Crofts was a horrible writer who only became famous due to a large output or his positioning within the timeframe of the Golden Age. 4/ 5 Stars from me, and I’m now off to spend a fortune hunting down copies of Crofts other novels!