Murder lurks in the idyllic English countryside (Shutterstock)
Murder lurks in the idyllic English countryside (Shutterstock)

Review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

By Ananya Borgohain
UPDATED ON APR 17, 2021 03:30 PM IST
400pp; Viking
400pp; Viking

Society enforces morality on its members to disguise its own irremediable decadence. People are amoral and eventually, fail each other. Well known English TV presenter and producer, Richard Osman, shows immense respect for both his readers and subjects as he manoeuvers this argument with finesse in The Thursday Murder Club.

Osman’s first book makes one wonder if Enid Blyton’s Famous Five grew old and moved to David Lynch’s quaint but mysterious town of Twin Peaks. However, Coopers Chase is a luxury retirement village with 300 residents in the Kent countryside in England. Every week, four senior citizens meet here to investigate unsolved murder cases from the files of a former police officer and a founding member of the club, Penny Gray, who now lies comatose in a nursing home. The members of this club are the foresighted and witty Elizabeth, probably a former spy for MI5; the methodical and calm Ibrahim Arif, a former psychiatrist; the firebrand Ron Ritchie, a former trade union hero; and the affable Joyce Meadowcroft, a former nurse.

Ian Ventham, the unscrupulous owner of Coopers Chase, plans to expand the village which was built on a convent in the first place and this expansion would entail digging up and relocating bodies of the nuns buried in the cemetery. This is met with fierce hostility from the residents. When Ventham’s right-hand man Tony Curran is found bludgeoned to death at his home, the club members open a Pandora’s box – moves that are a menace to the official investigators of the case, DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas. As the mystery unfolds, the cemetery seems to have buried not just people but also painful secrets from the past.

Osman powerfully dismantles settled notions of old age. His octogenarians are aware that they are in the evening of life and death and grief solicit their mundane views. Yet, these pensioners are fiercely independent, humorous, ambitious and resourceful. They clarify at the outset that they are not friends simply because they now have to spend the rest of their lives together. They are opinionated and do what they do because they are skilled at it.

The author also utilizes his literary flair to demonstrate a compassionate understanding of gender and ethnicity, and the attached prejudices at this nexus. Diversity is one of the most prominent themes in the novel. There are Turkish Cypriot gangsters (Osman carefully distinguishes them from the Greek Cypriots), a Polish working-class man with his own dubious past, a dead Indian wife, and an uncertain Christian priest. The book embraces the assortment of their oddities and what finally stands out are strong characters with unparalleled individualities. Osman ensures that they are not reduced to caricatures and that their diverse nationalities play a role in the plot.

Among all the fascinating characters, Elizabeth’s pizzaz is impossible to ignore. She had been in Beirut in the early 1970s, worked in a bar in former Yugoslavia, spent a month in a safe house near the Polish-West German border babysitting a Russian chess grandmaster and defector, a man in Geneva owes her a favour and gets her a suspect’s financial records, and more. One might wonder why the author does not specify that she indeed was an officer for the MI5. Like a true alpha, Joyce and to some extent Donna, are her perfect foils. And yet within that prism, both maintain their own distinctiveness. Having said that, there is a parallel narration by Joyce in the book. Her musings, as she documents things in her diary, could have been avoided; it does not add much to the plot.

Author Richard Osman (Shutterstock)
Author Richard Osman (Shutterstock)

The past and the present overlap, heightening the mystery in this whodunit but that also deconstructs the myth of righteousness. At the end of the story, one realizes that the crimes, victims, suspects and investigation are not as pertinent as is the final delivery of justice. Did finding the killer mean justice has been served or was it actually the murders that were just? The answer depends on the reader’s own moral compass.

Another way in which Osman explores morality’s shaky foundation is through the parent-child dynamic. The relationship of Joyce-Joanna, Bernard-Sufi, Ron-Jason, Gordon-Karen, Maggie-Patrick are manifestations of revelry, resilience and revelations alike; emotional baggage passed on from one generation to the other, affecting their future. The author takes care to craft his characters with their unique traits, differing opinions and independent purposes in life.

The global film rights of this record-breaking bestseller – said to be a part of a two-book deal worth a seven-figure advance – have already been sold to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The fact that this book is the first debut novel to become the Christmas No 1 in the UK and its continuing glorious reviews bear testimony that Osman the writer is unfazed by the name and fame of Osman the TV personality. He does not take his celebrity status for granted and honours the power of his pen. His writing is refreshingly grounded, empathetic and yet, riveting. But while a sequel to this delicious whodunit is already on the way, a prequel with Elizabeth and Penny when they were an Intelligence officer and a police officer respectively would be a glorious addition to Osman’s legacy.

Ananya Borgohain is a former journalist and publishing professional currently based in Munich, Germany.

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