The sun may have set on the British empire, but if there is one thing that the assortment of isles has perfected over the years, it’s the panel show. Countless comedians (from within an admittedly countable pool) are kept in work by virtue of being grist for the mill of the panel show. Our Pointless friend Richard Osman is responsible for much of this reverie, both in front of and behind the camera, often hiding his prodigious legs behind a counter and a fake laptop.
It’s no real surprise that Osman would go on to try his hand at writing a crime novel, or that it would feature a band of mystery hungry sept- and octogenarians; the only question anyone can reasonably ask is what took him so long. The Thursday Murder Club is the gentlest a multiple murder mystery can get without being classified as “cosy”; there are no cats or recipes between these pages, but those familiar with that venerable genre will feel right at home.
In the luxury retirement village, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron gather every Thursday to examine cold cases. When someone turns up murdered on their patch, the four friends decide that the police shouldn’t have all the fun, and set about endearing themselves to the investigators while attempting to dispense their own justice.
The most important element of Osman’s gambit is that he make his characters sympathetic, and not once does he condescend to the members of the club. While we know more of their outlines than we do of their souls, the key members are solid enough. The two police are more kind hearted than bumbling, although Osman characterises DCI Chris Hudson’s weight as a moral failing entirely too much as an element of his story arc.
The characters, therefore, are solid, but not load bearing enough to get away with a dull crime. The Thursday Murder Club is awash in crimes, and we get to learn more about them than we might have expected. While the characters seem to forget that crimes can overlap and intersect rather than overtake one another, Osman never quite drops the balls he’s juggling — his desire to tie up loose ends is almost pathological, as is his dedication to fake outs redder than any herring. The suspension of disbelief required to consume The Thursday Murder Club is no higher than any other unlikely vigilante story, and Osman’s solutions are by turns outlandish and neat.
There are elements of The Thursday Murder Club that don’t go down so well in 2020: lighthearted “jokes” about PC Donna De Freitas abusing her access to police resources, and committing a spot of excess force to a suspect to vent some steam. Even the jaunty small town constabulary aren’t immune to a spot of corruption, and it’s just not funny anymore (if it ever was). Donna and Chris are otherwise the most normal characters in Osman’s menagerie, but it becomes difficult to laugh with them, no matter how petty that grievance may seem.
Osman has taken some stylistic risks with his first novel, alternating between second person omniscience and conversational journal entries written by Joyce to an imaginary interlocutor. It doesn’t entirely work, as there’s no specific reason to make Joyce the sole first person voice, and the second person chapters frequently flirt with hateful stereotyping that almost falls on the wrong side of satire: it’s one thing for a character to be bigoted, but Tony Curran and Ian Ventham’s perspectives poison the page, and Osman comes dangerously close to caricature with the novel’s sole Polish delegate, Bogdan. The red baiting aimed at former labour organiser Ron is unfortunate at best, if you’re being charitable. Constructing his first novel this way was ambitious, and it doesn’t entirely pay off, so readers need to be aware of the baked in prejudices of the characters, if not Osman himself.
The book ends with the promise of The Thursday Murder Club 2, with a hastily mocked up cover thrown in after the acknowledgements. With The Thursday Murder Club having landed as the fastest selling adult fiction debut since The Casual Vacancy, we are now guaranteed at least three of these. The Thursday Murder Club is an assured, possibly over-confident, debut; if Osman can rein in his peccadilloes for impeachable police and certain methods of death, he could be on to something.