antidote“George Surridge entered his study shortly before seven on a cold night in mid October.”

Let’s just dive right in, shall we? In Antidote to Venom, Freeman Wills Crofts treats us to a crime novel with a difference. This is a murder mystery unlike any other I’ve read, given that it shows the other side of the story. Here, there is no question of “whodunnit” – we know, immediately. But Crofts is far more wily than that, and his story takes you along routes you never thought possible.

George Surridge is the director of Birmington Zoo, one of the most successful zoos in the UK, but he’s finding things difficult of late. He and his wife are barely speaking, there’s a disease bringing down many of the monkeys, and his lack of money is becoming increasingly problematic. Plus, he’s just started an affair with Nancy, a woman he meets at the zoo one day and is instantly besotted with. George will come into money when his aunt dies, since he is the sole remaining family member, but while his aunt is in ill health, she seems set to hang around. George begins to wonder if he could help hurry things along.

When the aunt is dead, however, the money is not forthcoming. It turns out that the solicitor of the estate, David Capper, has gambled it all away on the stocks. But he in turn is due a large inheritance from his uncle Mr Burnaby, another elderly figure still holding on. Burnaby has long been studying the snakes of Birmington Zoo, but recent events have conspired to mean George has taken away the scientist’s access to the reptiles. Capper, though, has a plan, and if George is willing to help him, they can commit a foul crime and soon be rolling in money. All George has to do is steal one of his own snakes…

The book can roughly be divided into two halves. In the first half, we hear the story from George’s point of view. As I said, there is no doubt that he is the criminal that in any ordinary murder mystery would be revealed at the end. Having it this way round, however, means we get to witness his true motives, and perhaps even develop a sympathy for him. The second half of the book follows the police as they try to work out how Burnaby died. It appears to have been a snake bite, but how did he get hold of a snake?

This “inverted” mystery makes for a hugely compelling read. As George spirals into a form of madness, obsessing over money and his new mistress, we are kept feeling tense as the noose tightens and a plan that at first seemed watertight might now be leaking. George, however, is a sympathetic character, and despite what he does, you can’t help but be rooting for him, if only a little. It’s also fascinating to see the police reach the conclusions that we already know. In your average Christie, we only find out the details in the final chapter. Here, we’ve already seen them. It’s a whole different kind of tension. The question is one more of “how” than “who”.

I’d never heard of Crofts before, and his is another book published in the British Library Crime Classics series. They seem to be specialising in authors whose work has long-since disappeared. Indeed, this is the first reprint of this book in several decades. I’ve read one from this line already, and there’s another on my shelf, but they’re all proof that the ‘Golden Age of murder’ was more than just Christie and Marsh. This is one of the smartest and most interesting books I’ve read all year, and a total must-read for anyone who enjoys a murder but is looking for something a bit different.

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