NR: The Thursday Murder Club

A book by that guy off the TV, the thoroughly amiable Richard Osman (at least he gives that impression). It’s breaking records all round, with over a million copies sold in the UK alone, success that is being repeated by the sequel, and Spielberg is making a film of the book. But would it have happened if the author wasn’t on the TV just about every night of the week, if he was an unknown rather than an eminently marketable celebrity?

I have mixed feelings about celebrity authors. On the one hand, yeah sure, a lot of these people have transferable skills and so that they can produce publishable work shouldn’t come as any surprise. Publishers want to make money, and of course there’s always the argument that these high profile books subsidise work that isn’t as readily marketable. On the other hand, you can’t help feeling that the celebs have an advantage over other authors (not their fault, just the way the world is), and wonder if more deserving work gets pushed aside so the guy or gal off the TV can develop another revenue stream. In an ideal world all first time writers would be required to submit anonymously and thus ensure an equal playing field, with work published on merit, only disclosing their identities at some later stage so any ‘celebrity’ would be literary rather than in some other area. In our non-ideal world, you can only read the books and call it how you see them (while taking a perverse delight in seeing books by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Joan Collins bomb)

So, The Thursday Murder Club… My partner picked it up in a charity shop when we were in Yorkshire last year and she wanted a holiday read. I was feeling emotionally drained after the intensity of Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been by Steven Dines (a brilliant book, buy it) and needed something completely different, something lightweight, a comfort read.

Coopers Chase, formerly a convent and now a luxury retirement village where four of the residents – Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron – investigate unsolved murder cases, with files supplied by founder member of the eponymous club, police officer Penny, who is now in a coma. Coopers Chase owner Ian Ventham is not a popular man and becomes even less so when he announces plans to expand the site, digging up the convent cemetery. When his former right hand man Tony is bludgeoned to death, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves with a real case on their hands. Led by the wily Elizabeth, they co-opt PC Donna and her unwitting DI Chris into their schemes, tapping them for information and providing their own insights. Things rapidly get a lot more complicated.

In tone this reminded me very much of the early work of Alexander McCall Smith, with the distinguishing feature being the tension between what is taking place on the page and the amiable way in which it is conveyed. It also reminded me strongly of the Midsomer Murders template where you start with one murder, the police arrive and suddenly there are dead bodies falling out of the rafters, and everyone has a motive.

Coopers Chase seems like an agreeable place to live, nothing at all like my impression of a retirement community, with lots of talented and engaged people, the Club members being the most prominent. They are certainly a lively bunch. Joyce is a former nurse who records things in her journal and the peacemaker of the group. Ron was once a former trade union firebrand, a man who always stands up for the underdog, with famous son Jason, a former boxer, adding yet another complication. Ibrahim was a psychologist, and is the details man of the group, the one who digs into things. And then there is Elizabeth, the mastermind, who stage manages all the others even if they’re not aware of it (and usually they are). Her past is only hinted at, but the obvious inference seems to be that she was someone of stature in the intelligence community, with connections from the past that stand her in good stead now. There’s a fine cast of supporting characters, each of them drawn with aplomb by the author, such as detective Chris who worries about his weight and lack of romantic attachments, Pole Bogdan who is far more than he at first appears to be, and nasty guy Ian, a fine example of the Lesser Crested Misogynistic Arsehole.

The mystery itself is suitably convoluted with enough red herrings that fishing quotas have probably been broken and a resolution that both satisfies and surprises; in fact, several resolutions. And along the way there are plenty of nice touches of humour, usually courtesy of snappy dialogue, Joyce’s accounts of Elizabeth in action, and the way in which the police are left floundering in the Club’s wake.

On the negative side, much of it didn’t convince me, as with the way in which Chris and Donna make themselves available to the Club whenever required, and some of the stuff in the past, such as Tony’s trip to Cyprus, didn’t really ring true, or the police believing that the prime suspect returned to settle a score umpteen years after the fact. And Elizabeth’s connections seem too much like a plot convenience, enabling her to discover whatever she needs to know simply by phoning a friend from the old days; it’s the pre-Internet equivalent of the omniscient hacker.

I enjoyed the book. It was just what I needed at the time – fast paced, comfort reading. I’m not sure that I’ll read any more of the Club’s scheduled adventures though (book three is out in September). I suspect that this is an occasion where repeat trips to the well will stretch credibility past breaking point. Pensioners might crack one murder case but, Miss Marple aside, it’s not something they’re likely to make a habit out of. On the other hand, pleasure rather than credibility might be key here, so maybe one day I’ll pick up another Osman, once he’s famous as an author and not the Pointless guy.

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