I realize that “cozy” is a somewhat derogatory label applied to a particular style of mystery, but I’m going to have to hijack it and repurpose it for Freeman Wills Crofts. Because really, “cozy” is the most apt term for how I can describe my time with his Inspector French. There’s really nothing astonishing or outright brilliant in what I’ve read so far, but damned if I didn’t enjoy ever minute. The typical mystery that I seek out has my mind racing for a solution and that ferocious urge to get to the end. With Freeman Wills Crofts, it’s like settling back into a comfortably worn well-stuffed leather chair by the fire and feeling at home.
And in that sense, I don’t know that there’s anything outwardly interesting to say about Antidote to Venom, other than I enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s an inverted mystery, with a bit of a clever take I suppose. You’re well aware of an accomplice to a murder – the various foibles that led them to be involved in the crime – but even said accomplice isn’t aware of how the murder was actually committed. As the reader, you know the “who” as well as the motive, but there’s an interesting mystery in the unknown “how”.
The first – I don’t know – two thirds sets up the crime and follows the fallout that follows. It reminded me a bit of Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley, although lacking Berkley’s sassy irony. The “villain” that we follow (which I later realized I imagined as the spitting image of Crofts) is enjoyably relatable, although most anyone would find his actions unethical on multiple fronts. There’s this odd hope that they succeed – not necessarily in the murder but in additional affairs – all while being acutely conscious that the desired outcomes are wholly insensitive to the plight of others. That’s the delicious contradiction of the first part though, and Crofts stretches it just to the point that it might become tiresome.
Then enter Joseph French. The detective steps into the picture at the mathematically perfect moment – just as your patience for the setup might be on the wane – and from thereon in this is just pure comfort food. Inspector French does his thing: meticulously following up clues, assembling theories, and tearing them down. Even though French’s task is daunting – this is as close to a perfect crime as you could likely get – and he encounters numerous failures, he takes it all in a determined yet cheerful stride. There’s something in it all that’s just so cozy, as if Crofts is showing you all that there is to enjoy out of life in England.
The actual “how” of the crime is pretty clever, and would give most impossible crime novels a run for their money. You piece it together alongside Inspector French though, so there isn’t exactly a major moment of revelation. That’s not a complaint though, as it fits Crofts’ style of story telling.
My big lesson from Antidote to Venom is that I waited way too long between Crofts reads. I’ve had seven or so of his books sitting on my shelf for nearly two years since reading The Sea Mystery, and although at least one has always been somewhere in my constantly shifting TBR pile, they somehow have never made it to the top. I hope to remedy that this year, especially with recent acquisitions of Sudden Death (an impossible crime) and a lovely Pocket Books edition of Sir John Magill’s Last Journey.
It seems that there are actually two British Library Crime Classics editions: the one that I have, which features a zoo on the cover, and an alternate edition with a picture of a snake on the cover. I wasn’t aware that any of the Crime Classics had been released in multiple formats.
The book opens with an introduction by Martin Edwards that provides some background on Crofts and gives an overview of Antidote to Venom. It’s an interesting read, but I recommend saving it until after you’ve read the book, because half the fun of this one is seeing how the story will unfold.
It’s unfortunate that the British Library edition doesn’t feature a map, as it appears that early editions of the book did. I wasn’t aware of the existence until after I had read the story, but understanding the layout of the zoo and the surrounding houses would have made things a bit more interesting, although it is in no ways crucial. This would have made a great map back.