Book Review: Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts (Inspector French, 17)

Maybe Freeman Wills Crofts is less perennially famous than his fellow Detection Club members Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Still, his solid methodical police detective Inspector French is a personal favorite. Crofts made his living as a railway engineer before turning to crime writing in 1929. Many aspects of his previous profession bleed through, such as using railway timetables to make or break alibis or traveling railways across swathes of land to catch killers. However, Antidote to Venom breaks many of the standard tropes of his Inspector French series. Crofts outlines his new methodology in the author’s note:

This book is a two-fold experiment: first, it is an attempt to combine the direct and inverted types of detective story and second, an effort to tell a story of crime positively”

Freeman Wills Crofts, Antidote to Venom (1938)

In modern parlance, the author will tell the reader who the killers are and why they kill, and Crofts goes one step further and takes the reader through how at least part of the crime is committed. Crofts doesn’t tell the reader how the murder was committed and whether Inspector French can determine the crime.


George Surridge is greedy, living beyond his means, and with a bad gambling habit of just trying to keep up appearances for his wife. George’s wife, Clarissa, a lady of independent wealth, lives in a loveless, sexless marriage with George out of convenience. She often scolds him for newer and better furnishings that they can ill afford. George is scrapping by with his occasional gambling winnings until his elderly, sick aunt dies, leaving him a considerable inheritance. The only real solace he has at work where is the director of the prestigious Birmington Zoo. He loves his animals and is respected by his employees. However, when a beautiful young widow, Nancy, catches George’s eye outside, one of the zoos exhibits his greed and dooms him. George, desperate for love and kindness, falls in love with Nancy at first sight and pursues a clandestine relationship. To cover his tracks, he hires a car and buys a new teatime basket every time they meet, but the financial burden of the affair becomes unbearable. Despite Nancy’s desire to break off the affair once she is told he is married, George convinces her to stay with him. He repeatedly checks with his aunt’s doctor to ascertain how much longer his sick aunt may live and is cheered when given the prognosis of mere weeks. During this time, Nancy’s employer dies, and she is forced to look for a new job far away from George- until George proposes that he buy her a little cottage he procures through borrowing against the money he will inherit. This is George’s biggest gamble.

After the quick death of his aunt, George meets with his oily lawyer, Mr. Capper, to discuss his inheritance. Meeting Mr. Capper at his shabby apartment, he is shocked to learn that Capper has speculated away all of George’s inheritance.


With the inheritance, George can repay the bank on the loan he secured for Nancy’s cottage. If he defaults, he’ll be bankrupt, his affair will come out, and his wife will divorce him. On the precipice of ruination, Capper cooly puts forth a plan for them both to get the money they need, all he needs from George is a snake from the zoo, and Capper will do the rest. The rest, George is horrified to learn, is kill Professor Burnaby, an independent researcher based out of the Birmington Zoo who is researching the usage of snake venom in curing cancer. Capper explains that Burnaby is his uncle and has squirreled away a tidy sum of 22,000 pounds which Capper will inherit on the death of his uncle. If George agrees to help Capper by killing a snake from the zoo, then Capper will give George half of the inheritance he will get on the death of Professor Burnaby.

Howdunit, Pt. 1: Stealing the Snake

George, initially revolted by the idea of committing murder, finds his resolve weakening under his immense financial pressures. George meets with Capper again, and Capper elucidates his plan- first, George must pretend to lose his work keys and then pantomime, being surprised to find them again. Then a few weeks later, George must open the snake cage, steal one, drown it, and then mail it to Capper. Capper does not reveal how he will kill his uncle, only that it will look like a snake bite accident to safeguard against George revealing Capper as his accomplice if he’s caught. So George executes Capper’s plan. He loses his keys and finds them later on the door handle. Two weeks later, he sneaks into the zoo, opens the metallic cage, lassos the neck of the snake with snake tongs, walk it to a water barrel, and leaves it to drown. Drowning the snake takes several hours, and there are a few times George is nearly seen but isn’t. When the snake is dead, George mails it to Capper and waits.

The next day, the alarm is raised early to find the venomous snake, and George plays his part perfectly. He locks down the zoo and helps his employees search for the snake. When the police come to investigate, he artfully places blame on a recently fired employee and later admits that Professor Burnaby could have taken a snake home to experiment. Only a few days later, Professor Burnaby is found dead on his neighbor’s driveway, a doctor from an apparent snake bite. The police and zoo staff search Professor Burnaby’s house and grounds for two days until they finally find the snake’s body- dead in the water. With the autopsy confirming the poisoning from the venomous snake in Professor Burnaby’s body and the body of the dead snake, local police close the case, and George Surridge and Mr. Clapper get away with murder.

Inspector French Enters

Inspector French is entertaining his brother-in-law and would like to talk about anything besides murder. However, his brother-in-law’s brother works at the Birmington Zoo and doesn’t believe Professor Burnaby stole a snake but was killed. Inspector French is intrigued. Inspector French reads the newspaper reports on the death of Professor Burnaby. He finds several inconsistencies- unsure if that’s due to lazy reporting or shoddy police work, he decides to find out. He calls the local police precinct and is forwarded the police reports. Reading through them, he is impressed with the thoroughness of the case but still thinks something is amiss. After a night of reflection, a slight inconsistency reveals itself- the police never found snake tongs in Professor Burnaby’s possession. Inspector French checks with the investigating officer to see if this was an oversight, but it isn’t. How did Professor Burnaby transport the snake to his house without snake tongs? Questions run amok: did someone take the tongs after his death, or was the snake already dead, and snake tongs would be unnecessary?

Howdunit Pt. 2: The Killing

Inspector French begins interviewing Professor Burnaby’s associates, and they repeatedly affirm that he would never steal a snake. Inspector French starts to muse on who would want Professor Burnaby dead and quickly realizes that Mr. Clapper is the immediate choice. Deeply in debt, Mr. Clapper’s desire for a large inheritance is a strong motive.

Having found the prime suspect, Inspector French tails Mr. Clapper and breaks into his woodworking workshop when his property is deserted. He sees the brown flakes of a bakelite doorknob scattered amongst the sawdust on the ground. Inspector French pockets a fragment and then considers if it would be possible to tamper with a doorknob so that it could mechanically inject the snake venom and mimic a bite mark. He is still determining exactly how it would be done but decides to concentrate on breaking down Mr. Clapper’s alibi that he was at the dentist, not near his uncle’s house. Thorough time tabling reveals that he could have replaced the doorknob and doubled back to replace it with a bakelite knob. Along the route Mr. Clapper would have driven, Inspector French passes a river and decides to send a diver down to look for a doorknob. 

After a few hours, the diver reappears with a doorknob; back at police headquarters, they inspect the knob, which is mechanized to prick the skin mimicking a snake bite. Inspector French heads to Mr. Clapper’s to arrest him. When Inspector French confronts Mr. Clapper in his apartment, the man has already poisoned himself with a replica device and declares that he worked alone before dying.

Can a Mystery End Positively for the Criminal?

Inspector French goes through Mr. Clapper’s financial accounts and discerns that he has stolen money from several of his clients, including George Surridge’s aunt. With this last piece of the puzzle, he goes to George Surridge’s house to arrest him. Still, George has already read about Mr. Clapper’s death and had been suffering acute guilt for weeks about his involvement in Professor Burnaby’s death. Unable to bear the responsibility any longer, he confessed the whole plot, his excruciating debts, and his torrid affair to his wife before going to the police and writing a complete account of the ordeal. George, unburdened at last, is at peace with his upcoming execution. His wife, Clarissa, has forgiven him and is so generous as to split the money George got from the death of Mr. Clapper with Nancy.

This is where the story violently goes off the rails for me. I can stomach that George Surridge racked with guilt, confesses to the crime, but I do not believe he would peacefully accept his fate. He has never accepted anything that’s happened to him, and his greed for more is his fatal flaw. Freeman Wills Crofts tries to say in the text that the burden of being an accessory to murder has brought George to a life crisis, and he changed. With this change of heart, Crofts argues that the crime of helping someone commit murder is somehow a lesser evil than actually committing murder. A moral difference that is slight enough for Crofts to hang his shingle but holds little water when looked at from the position of Professor Burnaby. Both actions brought about his death; without each of them doing their turn, he would still be alive. I don’t think George is a lesser crime than Mr. Clapper. While George is repentant and is heavily implied is morally forgiven for his sins, I don’t think all readers will agree with Crofts. The supposition that he was honorable to accept punishment from the state, in contrast with the dishonorable suicide of Mr. Clapper, is also difficult to swallow as a reader. The last five pages, which deal exclusively with moralizing and justifying who was more wrong or evil, really detract from the book, especially with the male insert fantasy of his wife and lover forgiving him, loving him, and all of them getting along. Maybe there can be a positive end for the criminal without cheating the justice demanded by the reader, but this isn’t that ending.

The Verdict

As one of the first instances of an inverted mystery, it’s a success and rather good mystery. I could not figure out how Mr. Clapper killed Professor Burnaby, nor did I think to notice the missing snake tongs, so the mystery, like all Freeman Wills Crofts stories, this one is difficult to solve. George Surridge was a fine, albeit repetitive, avatar for navigating the level. His foible’s lust for money and love are widely appealing and quickly suck the reader into the story, and there are plenty of fakeouts about who these sins will drive him to kill- his wife, his aunt, Nancy, himself?

However, the more I read about Crofts’ work, the more I discover he can’t write women as people. After so much buildup of George’s affair with Nancy, she’s largely forgotten until the last few pages, and I think he still needs to figure out what to do with her, so she keeps the house, and Clarissa is her gal pal. Clarissa was also built as a sharp-tongued woman who would rather stay in a loveless marriage than get a divorce; upon George’s arrest, she faces the scandal with him and is humbled by his honest confession, which leads to mutual love. Such an end to her character arc is laughable. Haughty and angry, but still going down with the ship is more in line with her, and I don’t see how George’s confession changed her point of view-unless Crofts had never spoken to a real woman in his lifetime, which I am beginning to suspect.

Stylistically the story is much the same as any other of his works, with a more extended buildup to this story due to the nature of it being from the criminal’s point of view. It’s a nice addition to the Inspector French series and I recommend reading this book if you’re a fan of inverted mysteries. Buy a copy here.

Further Recommendations

Miss Hildegarde Withers is taking her third grade class to the zoo to visit the penguins. When a man ends up dead in the penguin tank with Miss Withers hatpin through his ear she’ll have to clear her name and catch a clever killer. Read the review of The Penguin Pool Murder here.


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