The Thursday Murder Club is TV host Richard Osman’s first novel, and tells the story of four pensioners living in the same retirement village who get together on Thursdays to solve cold cases out of interest – until one day a real life murder falls right into their laps. I have a bit of an inbuilt snobbishness about novels by celebrities, honestly. This is not because I think that being a TV host precludes a person from being able to write, but because someone who’s famous is naturally going to get a book deal whether or not they’re any good, and they might not get edited as rigorously because they’re going to sell either way. Case in point: this was the fastest-selling adult crime novel in recorded history, even though nobody actually knew if it was any good (I think that review is silly to call it a “cosy caper”, by the way, given the rather grim places that the book sometimes goes). Also, I once read part of Oh Dear Sylvia by Dawn French and never fully recovered, so I am suspicious of novels by comedians in particular. In short, I only picked up The Thursday Murder Club because my book club chose it as our February choice, but I’m extremely glad I did. We’ve been running for a few months now, and this is our first universally popular read.
I liked the fact that the Murder Club originated with two women who had actually worked in relevant fields in the past – Penny, a retired police inspector, and Elizabeth, whose precise professional background is covered by the Official Secrets Act. Add to that Joyce, who was a nurse and who therefore knows quite a bit about death, and Ibrahim, a semi-retired psychologist – you have the makings of a fairly convincing team. The amateur detective thing doesn’t generally work in modern mysteries, so by setting this group up as not completely amateur Osman dealt with some of my suspension of disbelief issues straight out of the gate. The characters themselves are interesting, as well – they are types, but well fleshed-out types, and I don’t really expect anything more sophisticated than that in a page-turning crime novel. Ron Ritchie, for example, is a belligerent, argumentative old man – but he’s a belligerent, argumentative old man because he’s spent his life as a trade unionist, organising strikes and protests and marches. I found them very believable as older adults who find some things about modern life confusing (only Joyce can work Sky Plus, and Tinder is deeply unappealing to everyone), but are nonetheless extremely competent in their areas of expertise. Osman avoids a lot of the pitfalls that writers often fall into while writing older people. Joyce is maybe the closest to a cliché, but the whole time I was reading, it felt like there was something steely and sharp behind her old-lady fluffiness. Overall, I don’t think crime writers are ever helped by comparisons to Christie, but in this specific regard, Joyce reminded me strongly of Miss Marple.
There were times when the writing was a bit hamfisted. For example, Osman really, really wants us to know that Ventham is a Bad Guy – so he has him park in a disabled slot and choose tea because the coffee at a particular shop is fairtrade. Obnoxious, fairly low-level jerk behaviour in a book that’s about murder. But Ventham does all of it intentionally and ruminates how much he’s enjoying it. It’s as if Osman is waving a sign that says “This guy here, he’s a bad guy! Get it? A bad guy! Have you noticed?” I also found some of the foreshadowing a bit obvious, though I sometimes misinterpreted it (in which case it’s not so much foreshadowing as a successfully planted red herring, I guess). That’s the type of thing that I tend to give a pass in debut novels, though. Probably, as Osman’s writing career, develops he’ll get better at communicating that information more subtly. And, to be fair to him, in Kent (where this book is set and whence I originally hail), there are a lot of Ventham-style middle-aged men all over the place. Far more than in Southampton, where I now live. There’s something about Kent that attracts the Ian Venthams of the world. I’ve no idea what it is. Its historical association with beer production, perhaps?
Overall, despite my quibbles, I found this book remarkably well-written. There were moments that were surprisingly moving, and I thought they were done well. Osman plays with the fact that, by the time someone is in their seventies or eighties, it is likely that they have a period in their life that they don’t want to revisit or discuss. The reasons for that could be entirely benign – just that it is simply too painful – or they could be rather sketchier. That distinction matters when you are investigating a murder. As the friendships between the members of the Thursday Murder Club develop, the reader gradually gets to grips with their pasts, as well, and the sadder or more difficult aspects of their lives are written beautifully. Similarly, I think Osman has a very natural manner with dialogue. One of the scenes that has stayed with me is that of all the members of the Murder Club crammed into somebody’s tiny living room, alongside two members of Kent Police that they are trying to get onside in their investigation. The Murder Club – especially the two women – are acutely aware that they are seen as wittering, harmless old dears. They take huge delight in using that to their advantage – popping in and out, insisting that the nice young officers try their new lemon drizzle recipe, asking the type of friendly but slightly intrusive questions that older people can get away with – and using their razor-sharp minds to store up and analyse everything the police are unwittingly disclosing. At one point, once the police have cottoned on to the fact that they’re being had, the Murder Club are threatened with arrest for interfering with the investigation. This is their response:
“With what evidence, other than the inadmissable confession you’ve taken from us this evening? And with four suspects, all of whom are quite happy to go to court, smile happily and pretend to mistake the judge for their granddaughter and ask why she doesn’t visit often enough. The whole process is difficult, costly and time-consuming, and achieves nothing. No one is going to prison, no one is getting a fine, no one’s even going to be picking litter by the roadside.”
“Not with my back,” says Ron.
The book has a few qualities that I often find quite irritating in novels but that worked well for me after the first couple of chapters. It alternates between viewpoints and tenses. Some of the chapters are written, essentially, as diary entries by Joyce, but most of them are third person narrated with various different points of view. The third person chapters are present tense, while the Joyce chapters are written at the end of each day. This actually works pretty well – you see the day’s actions and various characters going about their daily business, and then you get Joyce’s excited, slightly breathless retelling of the investigation, and get access to information you never would have otherwise. Although her chapters are presented as diary entries, they are written like a story being told to a friend – so she breaks off and asks hypothetical questions and makes seemingly parenthetical asides about cake. It’s past tense with some present tense. Joyce has a very distinct voice – actually, all the characters do – and it is a pleasure to hear her take on everything that’s happening. The multiple narrators thing sometimes doesn’t work in mystery novels, because it can feel repetitive, but it’s done very well here and never feels like rehashing the same information. The multiple viewpoints also allow for several minor side plots that are knitted into the main story well, and allow it to feel a bit more fleshed out and human. The highlight for me in terms of subplots was the gradual development of the friendship between the two police officers, which is done very nicely and has an unexpectedly touching conclusion.
You can tell that Osman is familiar with both Golden Age detective stories and modern police procedurals and thrillers – he’s incoporated elements of them all, sometimes followed and sometimes played with the conventions, and come up with a genuinely interesting style for telling the story. It’s also successful as a mystery. My book club met halfway through reading, and it was interesting to see what everybody thought at the end of Part 1. We all had different theories and credible reasons as to why we thought we were right – to my mind, this is the mark of a skilfully told story. We also veered off down a rabbit hole discussing the depiction of people battling either with dementia or with the fear of dementia. I think that doing both of these things well – the plot and the character work – is unusual, especially for a debut novel. And, despite that fact that I am familiar with the conventions of the genre, I was properly blindsided by the results. A sequel to The Thursday Murder Club is in the works, and, of course, the film rights have already been sold. Despite my early cynicism, I am greatly looking forward to more of this universe on both page and screen.