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22nd December 2023

Book Review: Richard Osman’s The Last Devil to Die

Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series is very popular – don’t underestimate it, writes Christopher Jackson

In our age, there is an increasing suspicion that reading isn’t really that popular a pursuit at all. If we ask why this might be, we can alight on the Internet and television as explanations – but only partially. It is no coincidence that at the same time that the novel has declined, many newspapers are in thrall to the notion of ‘literary fiction’. This umbrella term, unhelpful as it is, broadly refers to writers who have no interest in story or character but are instead ‘noted for their prose’. Really they’re writing poetry without form or rhyme.

One might legitimately add that almost all these writers are of the left and therefore coming at the world with a series of preconceived ideas about things: the passivity of their prose feels allied to an inherited world view. Independent thought cedes to long waffly passages of description, where the psychological condition of a character is told not by exposure to event but as one-noted perception.

We’ve forgotten what’s difficult – to tell a good story and to show how people really go through the world. In certain circles you can be met with gales of hatred if you say you prefer CJ Sansom to Ian McEwan as I do, or Ursula K. Le Guin to Zadie Smith; but I am prepared to take this a step further and announce to an astonished world that I prefer Richard Osman to Salman Rushdie.

Within the world of books which are actually fun to read, the hardest of all genres is crime fiction. The main reason for this is that you are writing for an audience largely made up of people who have read thousands of such novels before. They’re a tough crowd. In addition to this, you have to work within a formula – in the same way that a formal poet will be caught up in metre and rhyme, the writer of murder mystery must have a victim and a murderer, a series of clues and red herrings, and at least one desirable detective. To do all this successfully is sufficiently rare for readers to want to punch the air when they encounter it.

Richard Osman’s achievement in The Thursday Murder Club series is to create funny and joyful narratives in a genre which you might think of as staid. Simultaneously he manages to say something definitely true about human nature: you shouldn’t count out the old.

The Thursday Murder Club series is set in a Kent retirement village and is now into its fourth book. In order of publication, these are: The Thursday Murder Club (2020), The Man Who Died Twice (2021), The Bullet that Missed (2022), and the new book The Last Devil to Die (2023). The inspiration behind the books was delightfully simple. Osman, best known for being the presenter of TV’s Pointless, was visiting his mother at one such place, having lunch with her and her intelligent friends, and he looked around and thought: “This is a perfect place for a murder.” Then came the ensuing thought: “And I bet these old folk would be the ones to solve it.”

What is good about the conception is that it reminds us that we tend to look through the old when we really shouldn’t. Almost by definition they know more than we do – even if, as one character does in the series, they’re beginning to lose their marbles. Osman knows that dementia is a terrible thing, but it is also a kind of experience and therefore a kind of wisdom.

In a world where judges retire at 70, and accountants somewhat earlier, these books can be read as a quiet broadside to the way we treat the elderly: in forgetting what they did for us, we also forget what they’re now capable of.

The Thursday Murder Club itself consists of Elizabeth, a retired spook, who is very much the ring-leader; her best friend the widow Joyce, through whose eyes we see many events in the books; Ibrahim, a gay retired psychotherapist; and Ron, a left-wing divorcee, whose boxer son Jason also features from time to time in the books.

It is worth sampling Joyce’s voice to get an idea of the comedy of Osman’s world:

We’ve had the most wonderful New Year’s bash. We drank, we counted down to midnight and watched the fireworks on TV. We sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, Ron fell over a coffee table, and we all went home.

The humour is almost always dropped in like this, incidental to the plot – or perhaps bundled in with it. We can see the comedy of Ron falling over, but it rushes past us and doesn’t hold us up: this is what distinguishes the books from those of, say, PG Wodehouse, where we are always building towards set pieces like the Gussy Fink-Nottle prizegiving scene in Right Ho, Jeeves. Wodehouse is pure knockabout comedy; Osman’s laughs are part of the fabric of a world where crime occurs.

The crimes themselves lead onto another set of characters – specifically Chris and Donna, the likeable detectives whose love lives the Thursday Murder Club quartet also mind about. Chris has been given Osman’s own eating addiction, which the writer has been open about in interview. The image of the police which the books gives is broadly favourable – but then this is to be expected of a writer whose overall view of humanity is generous. In fact, if it comes to that he’s generous also to the criminals. Here is a representative passage about Mitch Maxwell in The Last Devil to Die who is probably Osman’s funniest creation to date:

Here’s the thing. It’s a great deal easier being interviewed by the police than another criminal. Mitch Maxwell has been interviewed by the police many times, and their resources and opportunities are limited. Everything is on tape, your overpaid solicitor gets to sit next to you shaking her head at the questions, and, by law, they have to make you a cup of tea.

Sometimes this sort of writing has led critics, who should be enjoying the books, to tut and say that Osman doesn’t in the end take crime very seriously at all. Personally, I think he is just a better writer than the people writing about him. Who’s to say that it’s not slightly annoying to be a book reviewer dealing in prose – and perhaps with an unpublished novel or two sitting in the desk drawer – and to find that a mere TV man can write so well?

The other magnificent thing about these books is that because we’re dealing with a group of elderly detectives, we get a sense of how much time matters. The action across all four books probably takes place over a mere calendar year. This means that a new set of murders is usually kicking off a matter of weeks after the previous. This creates a sense that the characters are packing lots into their lives, and we feel we might emulate this in ours, even if we’re not solving murders ourselves.

But this is not to say that Osman turns his attention away from the aging process: without wishing to give spoiler alerts, in The Last Devil to Die, he confronts it head on with great wisdom and tenderness. About the plot itself I shall say little for fear of giving it away. But in this book Elizabeth, the leader of the gang, is undergoing some personal difficulties which mean that Joyce now takes centre stage in solving the murders: the Thursday Murder Club is evolving over time. I was pleased to see we also get to know Ibrahim better in this book too.

Naturally, we mustn’t go too far. Osman isn’t Shakespeare; the real poetic pleasures aren’t to be found in these books as they might be in those rare literary novels which tell exciting stories. But the joy they give is far better than what we’re all too often faced with in literary fiction today: no joy at all.

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