Án intrepid woman leads a group of pensioners to solve a double murder in 'The Thursday Murder Club'.
By the end of this month, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club is expected to sell a million copies, making it the third biggest-selling hardback novel on record in the UK after Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Published late last year, this good natured work of crime fiction by the creator and co-presenter of the popular BBC quiz show Pointless not only received agreeable reviews but also reached the top of bestseller lists.
It then gained the distinction of being the first debut novel to become the Christmas No. 1, edging out Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. If that wasn’t enough, the book’s film rights were acquired by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, with the author on board as an executive producer.
A doubtlessly delighted Osman told the UK Times, “Sociologically I find it fascinating, personally I find it humbling and, as someone who’s obsessed with numbers, I find it exciting. I couldn’t have ever dreamt that it would go in this direction.”
What explains this runaway success? The Thursday Murder Club is akin to the genre referred to as a cosy murder mystery. Typically, this is a whodunit with an amateur sleuth, a countryside or small town setting, and a small group of suspects, most of whom love to gossip about one another. A far cry from cat-and-mouse psychological thrillers of girls on trains or intense Scandinavian page-turners of girls with dragon tattoos.
Many of them are indebted to works from the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels are a prime example, as are others by Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Josephine Tey. Immensely popular in the 1920s and 30s, they were shouldered out of the limelight by others written in a hard-boiled and brutally realistic manner. In 1945, Edmund Wilson was to cruelly and unfairly ask: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”
It’s been conjectured that such novels were widespread because they offered a genteel escape from the aftermath of the First World War’s horrors. They were pleasurable whodunits to lose oneself in, and the scholar Alison Light has even described this as a “literature of convalescence”. Within its pages, one could find space for grief, mourning and restoration to play themselves out. There was further comfort in denouements that brought wrongdoing to light and reinstated communities to earlier, orderly ways of life.
Returning to the present, Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, like a good cosy mystery, is set in a countryside community: the sedate Coopers Chase Retirement Village in England’s Kent. Here, residents lead lives seemingly undisturbed by the upheavals of the outside world. They soak in the jacuzzi, complete jigsaw puzzles, play bridge, or simply swap memories. It is an enclosed society that, as one resident feels, is “so full of ridiculous committees and ridiculous politics, so full of arguments, of fun and of gossip.”
The murder club of the title refers to a group of pensioners who test their wits by poring over files of unsolved police cases from the past. This spirited crew comprises a retired psychiatrist, a former trade union organiser and an ex-nurse, led by an intrepid woman who, somewhat implausibly, appears to be a former intelligence agent.
Soon, a dodgy deal involving the expansion of the retirement home leads to the murder of a property developer, and the unofficial club swings into action. With aplomb, they handle investigating officers, suspects, and occasionally travel further afield to track down others who may shed light on proceedings.
The plot thickens, as it should, with another murder and the discovery of skeletons not just in cupboards but also in graveyards. It’s altogether quite satisfying.
Along the way, in the manner of any self-respecting thriller, there are twists and turns, lies and alibis, red herrings and pink faces. Despite moments that stretch credulity, it adheres to Dorothy Sayer’s manifesto for members of her erstwhile Detection Club: no dependence on “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.”
The Thursday Murder Club is undeniably cosy, but it does depart from a few conventions of the genre. Some killings don’t occur offstage, for example, and there are forays into the mechanics of a drug route from Turkey into Northern Cyprus. There’s also puckish fun involving the way we live now, with retirees coming to grips with Tinder and Internet slang. (“I’m afraid I don’t know WTF. I only discovered LOL from Joyce last week. I’m going to assume that it doesn’t refer to the Warsaw Transit Facility.”)
Arriving at a time of lockdowns awash with headlines on the pandemic’s tragic body count and other repercussions, Osman’s novel provides a safe haven in the way that the golden age novels did after the war. Definitely a welcome diversion and consolation at a time when both are sorely needed.