The success of Richard Osman’s first comic crime novel, The Thursday Murder Club, came as no surprise. He is a much-loved TV personality whose company is enjoyed by an enormous number of people, many of whom chuckle “You’re absolutely right, Richard” at least 17 times a week. As a loyal viewer of Pointless, I can recall only once violently disagreeing with him, which was when he averred – and truly, this was like a bomb dropping – that sourdough bread was not suitable for toasting.
What couldn’t have been predicted about Osman’s books was that they would sell quite so phenomenally well, or be so good. But the formula is fiendishly clever: four senior-citizen friends living in a Kent retirement community have decided to eschew the usual 5,000-piece jigsaws to pool their intelligence and solve murders. It helps that their leader, Elizabeth Best, is ex-secret service, and is always having hilarious flashbacks to East Berlin in 1970. But the others possess useful, Avengers Assemble-type complementary gifts. Ron is a bolshie former union agitator who automatically disbelieves anything he’s told; Ibrahim is a highly organised retired psychiatrist, happy only when making lists or explaining something. Most memorable of all, however, is the cheerful, unshockable Joyce. A former nurse, Joyce is likely to comment favourably on the shade of someone’s blouse while in the presence of a headless corpse. She provides a decent proportion of the narration and a very large number of the laughs.
The new book wastes no time allowing time to pass, which is sensible, yet we feel that things have moved on. The foursome’s cosy relationship with the local Fairhaven police detectives – young Donna and her boss, Chris – is now established as a firm friendship; the wonderfully buff Polish handyman Bogdan is likewise reliably on hand. All are being rounded out nicely. The plot introduces some new bad people: a local teenage thug; a tough-nut female drug dealer who (helpfully) goes weak at the knees around Bogdan; a high-level underworld “middle man” from whom mafia diamonds have been stolen on impulse by a raffish ex-husband of Elizabeth’s. A plan to thwart all of these bad people – and dole out the correct amount of violent retribution to each – requires the full measure of Elizabeth’s genius, but of course she manages it all, while at the same time (here’s the clever part) raising none of the usual concomitant risks of going mano a mano with dangerous criminals. Yes, a sense of jeopardy is entirely absent. Even when an armed and angry New York mafioso turns up, no reader need worry that Joyce or Elizabeth will accidentally receive a fatal crossfire bullet to the head.
Those of us who write comic crime are often asked to explain the appeal. We can’t. It all boils down to your attitude to entertainment. If you are happy to let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, you can relax and enjoy this novel, which is superbly entertaining. And of course it’s never just about the laughs. The comedy in The Man Who Died Twice allows for all its characters to be alert to sobering realities: of time running out; of losing loved ones to death or dementia; of feeling physically unsafe in the modern world; of grown-up children finding you stupid and tiresome. It’s this self-awareness that grounds Osman’s characters, and makes us look forward to seeing them again. I would only add on a personal note that it’s a particular challenge to read this book while attempting a sugar-free diet. I managed to steel myself to all the Twixes, but the throwaway reference to chocolate fingers on p284 nearly broke me.