Antidote to Venom: A British Library Crime Classic

Antidote to Venom: A British Library Crime Classic

George Surridge, director of the Birmington Zoo, is a man with many worries: his marriage is collapsing; his finances are insecure; and an outbreak of disease threatens the animals in ...

About The Author

Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879–1957)was one of the pre-eminent writers in the golden age of British crime fiction. He was the ...

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Chapter I

Venom: In the Family

George Surridge entered his study shortly before seven on a cold night in mid October. He was in an irritable frame of mind, the result of an unusual crescendo of small worries. It had been one of those days on which everything had gone wrong, the last straw being provided by an aching tooth which had gnawed itself into his consciousness through all that he did. He had meant to go down town and have it seen to, but one thing after another had cropped up to prevent him. With more than usual pleasure he had been looking forward to this half-hour of relaxation before dinner.

But even now the tendency persisted. As he glanced at the fire his brow darkened. It had been allowed to go down and the room was cold. How many times, he asked himself savagely, did that confounded girl need to be told to have it burning up brightly when he came in? Why couldn’t she do what she was asked? His hand strayed towards the bell, then desisted. What was the good? If he said enough to make any impression on her she would leave and then there would be hell to pay with Clarissa. He glanced at the wood bucket. For a wonder there was something in it. Irritably he raked  the coals together and threw on a couple of blocks. Then crossing the room he poured himself out a stiff whisky and soda. He carried the glass to his arm-chair, and picking up the evening paper which he had brought in with him but laid aside, he sat down with a grunt of relief.

He turned to the financial pages. Stocks were dropping, and considering the state of the country, he didn’t see why they should. There was talk of another slump and the idea frightened him. For money meant a good deal to George Surridge. As it was he was hard up, and if things grew worse his position might become really serious.

He was a man of rather undistinguished appearance, of the type which would inevitably pass unnoticed in a crowd. Of medium height and build, he was neither markedly well or ill favoured in face. His hair, of a medium shade of brown, was greying at the temples. His forehead was perhaps his best feature, fairly high though not broad, but his mouth was weak and his eyes a trifle shifty. He looked tired and worried and old for his age, which was forty-six.

But though he seemed to be bearing his share of trouble, a casual acquaintance would have said he had little reason to grumble. He held a good job. George Surridge was Director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo; and the Birmington Zoo was claimed by Birmington people as the second zoo in the country: smaller perhaps than London—though not a whit inferior—but larger and better than any other. This post gave him a good social position in the city, an adequate salary and free occupation of the comfortable house in which he was now seated, not to speak of coal and these logs—which had now burst into a blaze and begun to give out heat—as well as the electric current which was lighting his reading lamp.

It was certainly a snug enough post, and unless he made some serious break, secure. The work also was congenial.

He loved animals and they seemed to recognise in him a friend. So far none of them had ever turned on him or shown temper when he was with them. On the whole, too, he got on reasonably well with his staff. If his relations with his wife had been equally satisfactory he might have been more content, but unhappily these left a good deal to be desired. He settled down comfortably with his whisky and newspaper. This little rest should help him, and by dinner time he should be feeling normal.

He was not, however, to be allowed to enjoy his relaxation. He had read for a few moments only when the door opened and his wife entered. She was dressed for the street and had evidently just reached home.

Clarissa Surridge was a woman striking enough looking to attract the eye of the casual passer-by. Tall, and with a presence, her well cut clothes accentuated the lines of her fine figure. Her pale oval face had good features, though  a discontented and rather unhappy expression. In spite of her make-up—usually much too lavish for her husband’s taste—little lines appeared on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes, while streaks of grey marked her dark hair. Now she looked upset and annoyed and George saw that he was in for trouble.

“Oh, you’re home?” she began ungraciously, then continued in a hard unsympathetic voice. “The car’s broken down again. I thought I’d never get back. Either the car’s done or Pratt doesn’t know how to manage it.”

George’s heart sank. The car undoubtedly was old. It had been a good Mortin in its day, but of course five years was five years. It was certainly shabby, though the engine was sound. Recently he had had a re-bore and he had also got a new battery, tyres and other fittings. It really wasn’t too bad. “What’s the matter now?” he asked, with an unpleasant accent on the last word.

Clarissa closed the door, not too gently, and advanced into the room. “I’ve just told you. What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing. The car’s all right.” He glanced down at his paper as if he had closed the subject, then looked up again. “What went wrong?”

“How do I know? I’m not a mechanic.” Her voice indicated with uncompromising clarity that the subject was anything but closed.

“Well, what happened?” went on George impatiently. “It stopped.” His wife warmed to her subject as she proceeded to develop it. “I had just set down Margaret Marr at a shop when it stopped: there in King Street in the middle of the traffic. The police came over and a crowd gathered while it was being pushed into the kerb. I don’t know when I felt such a fool.”

“What has Pratt done about it?”

“I don’t know what he’s done about it and I care less. What I know is that it’s the third time it has happened in a couple of months.”

George Surridge jerked himself about in his chair. Really women’s notions were the limit. “Rubbish,” he said shortly. “Every car goes wrong occasionally.”

“Well, as I tell you, it’s gone wrong once too often. I give you warning I’m not going on with it any longer. Why, it’s six years old if it’s a day.”

“Five.”

“It’s the same thing. When are you going to get a new one? I’ve spoken about it often enough.”

“Speaking about it won’t provide the money. I’ve told you I can’t afford it at present.”

“What nonsense! You have plenty of money. If not, where has it all gone to?”

George lifted his paper again as if to read, then once again dropped it. “You would have all that painting done. Only for that I might have managed it.”

If this was meant as an olive branch, it failed in its purpose. Clarissa’s eyes flashed angrily and her voice took on a more bitter tone. “Oh, my fault, of course. That painting! Why, it’s years since anything was done. And your committee friends wouldn’t move, though it was their liability. I suppose they have no money either.”

“They thought they had done enough for one year with the new electric wiring.”

“Yes, tear the place to bits and then leave it like that! I’d like to know how I was to have my friends in if the house was like a pigsty?”

This touched a sore spot and George reacted accordingly. “I could do without them all right,” he declared grimly, and as the thought of his grievances grew, he went on with a rising inflexion. “Here I come home after sweating all day for you and your house and I want a little peace, and there’s never a minute I can call my own.”

“And what about me?” Clarissa retorted. “Do you think I do nothing all day? Haven’t I got this house to run—on half nothing? And you grudge me a little relaxation.”

George Surridge all but laughed as he compared this picture of his wife’s existence with the reality. Actually she lived her own life among her own friends, keeping her own council, and using the house as a sort of inferior hotel, of which, owing to its unfashionable situation, she was slightly ashamed. “A little relaxation?” he retorted. “Hang it all, don’t be an utter fool. Look here,” he felt he had spoken improperly and was sorry, but could not bring himself to apologise, “forget what I said. Let’s have a quiet evening for once in away and I’ll see what I can do about the car.”

Clarissa smiled maliciously. “If you had wanted a quiet evening you shouldn’t have invited your aunt to dinner.”

“Oh hell! I forgot about her.” “Not my friends this time.”

George waved his paper irritably. “We have to do it, as you know very well. If she thought she didn’t get proper attention, she’s quite capable of altering her will.”

“She’ll perhaps see through your affection and do it in any case.” Swinging on her heel, Clarissa left the room, while George sat on before the now dying fire, gazing gloomily into the cooling embers.

The scene with his wife had not unduly upset him. Unhappily he had grown accustomed to such an atmosphere, as for many years it had been the normal one existing between them. There were indeed few subjects they could discuss without heat, and not infrequently recriminations were much more bitter than on this evening.

His thoughts travelled back over the path his steps had so far followed. He had been lucky as a youth. He had had good parents, a comfortable home, an excellent education and enough money to enable him to choose his career. He had always loved animals, but at first the idea of becoming connected with a zoo had not occurred to him. He had taken his degree in veterinary surgery, intending to set up in one of the hunting counties. Then a small mischance had given a new twist to his ideas.

Driving to the wharves in Antwerp on his return from a holiday in Germany, a slight collision with another car had caused him to miss his boat. With some hours to spare before the next, he had naturally gravitated to the Zoo. In passing through the gardens he had observed on an office door the inscription, “Bureau du Directeur.” The idea that here was his life’s work leapt into his mind and his first care on returning to England was to make an appointment with the Director of the London Zoo to ask about possibilities. Luckily or unluckily for him, it happened that at that very moment the Director was in need of a junior assistant. He took to his visitor personally, and was pleased not only with his obvious love for animals, but the fact that he was a qualified veterinary surgeon. To make a long story short, he offered him a job, which was instantly and  rapturously accepted.

Young George Surridge’s heart was in his work and he gave satisfaction. In six years he was promoted twice, and at the end of ten he found himself second in command and his chief ’s right hand man.

Then he fell in love.

It happened that some months before his last promotion George was sent on business to the house of a Mr. Ellington, a City magnate who lived in St. John’s Wood. This gentleman had a tiny aquarium stocked with rare fish small in dimension but spectacular as to shape and colour. He was anxious to extend his collection and had consulted George’s chief on the project. George’s job was to view the site and assist with expert advice.

Ellington found the young man interesting and kept him to tea. There George met Mrs. Ellington and her two daughters. Clarissa, the elder, he admired immensely, though no thought of love at that time entered his mind.

The progress of the new aquarium involved further visits and George gradually grew more and more intimate with the family. He soon learned that both daughters were engaged, Clarissa to an artist and Joan to an officer in the Guards. The artist he detested at sight, privately diagnosing him, with a callous disregard to the purity of metaphor, as a weedy gasbag.

As time passed, in spite of his quite genuine efforts to prevent it, he found his admiration of Clarissa growing into a very real love. He was honourably minded and he felt he should avoid the house, but the job still required his presence, and when Clarissa asked him to wait for lunch or tea, as she often did, he had not the strength to refuse.

So matters dragged on for some time and then, just after George’s promotion to the position of Chief Assistant, there came a fresh development. Clarissa and the artist had a terrible quarrel. George never knew what it was about, but it ended in Clarissa breaking off the engagement.

George at first was stunned by the possibilities now opening out before him. Just as he had obtained his new job and reached a position in which he could afford to marry, the girl he had so hopelessly loved had become free. He scarcely dared to think that she would accept him, owing to the difference of their social stations. However, after waiting for a reasonable time he took his courage in both hands and proposed. To his surprise she accepted him, and a few months later they were married.

Then for George there set in a period of disillusionment, which grew more and more heartbreaking as the weeks passed. Clarissa before marriage had cheerfully accepted all the disabilities which he had warned her would result from what, in comparison with her previous life, would be straightened circumstances. Her acceptance had, he was sure, been perfectly honest, but she had not realised to what she was agreeing. When, for example, she found they were travelling second class on their honeymoon to Switzerland, she had frowned, though without remark. And when at Pontresina they had gone to a comparatively primitive hotel with small rooms and without private baths, she had been a little short. It was not, he felt sure, inconsistency on her part.

It was simply that she had never before in her life travelled otherwise than in the lap of luxury.

This question of money was not referred to between them, but it loomed larger and larger in his thoughts and it spoiled his pleasure. Rightly or wrongly, he felt Clarissa was looking down on the entertainment which he was able to provide, and he grew correspondingly awkward and distant in manner, a change to which she reacted unhappily. At the same time there began to grow up in his heart a sense of grievance against her. She had money of her own, but she never offered to share the financial burden. At first he clung to the view that this was to spare his pride, and he certainly would have felt affronted if she had offered to pay for the holiday. But he did think she might occasionally have said: “Look here, let’s go halves in this,” or sometimes have paid for the occasional special excursions they took, some of which were quite expensive.

Though he sincerely tried to make excuses for her, this money question spoiled their honeymoon, and both were glad when they set their faces homewards. Often afterwards he thought that if he had been honest with her and told her directly of his difficulties, a happy understanding might have been reached. But his pride stepped in and prevented him. When they reached London and set up in what was to her a tiny and rather inconvenient house, this bar to their happiness remained. It was true that Clarissa did now spend money on their establishment, but he gradually found that it was only on things which benefited herself, not on those they used jointly. They settled down, however, as well as do a great many other married couples. Outwardly they were amicable enough and they avoided the bitter quarrels that separated some of their friends. But they had little real fellowship. George’s love for his wife gradually died, and he began to ask himself whether she had ever felt any at all for him.

When they had been married some eight years, George obtained one of the plums of the zoological world: the directorship of the Birmington Zoo. A new house among new surroundings and the breaking of certain old ties might bring about that reconciliation and companionship for which he so much longed. From every point of view he was delighted at the prospect and he moved to the Midlands with enthusiasm.

Once again he was disappointed. Though from a professional point of view the change left nothing to be desired, the effect on his home life was bad rather than good. In the new city Clarissa missed her friends. Moreover she did not particularly take to the Midlanders. With her metropolitan standards she was inclined to look down upon them as provincials. They quickly sensed her feeling and their welcome grew less friendly. Clarissa became lonely and unhappy.

This is not to say that she did not make friends. Both she and George made a number, but the process proved slower than it need have done.

In Birmington, as in Switzerland and London, the question of money tended to prevent real good fellowship developing between husband and wife. As director, George was now in receipt of a much larger salary than formerly, as well as a free house, rates, and other perquisites. If Clarissa had been content with their former scale of living, it would have greatly eased his position, enabling him to insure and to save against a rainy day, as he wished. But with the larger salary her demands grew greater, and while they lived in a better way, it took almost the whole of the larger salary to do it.

In that ten years of life at Birmington, relations between the couple had slowly deteriorated. At times George felt he absolutely hated his wife. They still had had no direct breach, but he could not be blind to the fact that one might occur at any moment.

He felt old and dispirited, did George Surridge, as he sat on in his study gazing morosely into the dying fire. A sense of futility oppressed him, a sense that nothing he was doing was worth while and that much he was occupied with would be better left undone. Besides the unhappiness of his home, another matter, even more serious, was preying on his mind. He had been idiotic enough, for sheer amusement and relaxation, to get into a gambling set at the club. He had lost, and was losing, more than he could afford, and yet he didn’t want to stop playing. The men he met were a pleasant crowd, indeed they seemed to him at times the best friends he had. He saw, however, that he must break with them, for the simple reason that he couldn’t afford the continued drain on his pocket. This he had realised for some months, yet when they invited him to join them he had not had the strength to refuse, telling himself on each occasion that this time he must win, and that if he did, never again would he touch a card.

His thoughts swung round into a familiar channel. If only his old aunt would die and leave him her money! She was well-to-do, was Miss Lucy Pentland, not exactly wealthy, but obviously with a comfortable little fortune enough, and she had on more than one occasion told him that he would be her heir. Moreover, she was in poor health. In the nature of things she could not last very much longer. If only she would die!

Surridge pulled himself up, slightly ashamed of himself. He did not of course wish the old lady any harm. Quite the reverse. But really, when people reached a certain age their usefulness was over. And in his opinion she had reached and passed that stage. She could not enjoy her life. If she were to die, what a difference it would make to him!

Thoughts of her reminded him that she was probably at that moment on her way to the house. The evening would be trying. She was a little deaf and was hard to entertain. Thank goodness she liked to go home early.

Finishing his whisky, Surridge went upstairs to change for dinner.

Reviews of

Antidote to Venom: A British Library Crime Classic

“This wonderfully intricate puzzle by one of the foremost writers during the Golden Age of British crime fiction was first published in 1938 and has been re-issued as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series. Crofts introduced the “inverted mystery” structure here, in which the traditional whodunit is turned on its head, with the reader following the murderer through temptation and commission and then watching the detective (Crofts’ continuing character, Inspector French) sort through the sparse clues. With Crofts at the helm, this makes for identification with the murderer and also excruciating suspense throughout. The action centers on George Surridge, a zoo director whose life is unraveling. Surridge has a miserable marriage, a gambling habit, and a new drain on his finances in the form of a woman he’s fallen in love with. Crofts also presents us with a fascinating backdrop with the running of the zoo. The day-to-day operations (how many herrings are needed to feed a king penguin each day, for example) are given in precise detail, with a special emphasis on security arrangements for the reptile house, which figures prominently later on. While the murder plot and method are gasp-inducing, Crofts’ depiction of a man sliding more and more into temptation is thrilling as well. Each chapter starts with the word venom connected to a path (as in family or office) through which this metaphorical poison can enter someone’s life. Brilliant in construction and theme.”

Booklist (starred review)

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