I really should not have enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club (2020) as much as I did. I’m an avowed devotee of the rigour of Freeman Wills Crofts and I have a nerdy podcast where we get far too serious about the minutiae of classic era detective fiction, for pity’s sake — a lightly comedic crime novel in which a group of septuagenarians inveigle their way into a murder investigation while worrying about the quality of supermarket own-brand biscuits should not raise from me even a curious eyebrow. And yet, honestly, I loved it. I don’t think I’ve been this charmed in years, and I haven’t laughed so much and so helplessly since reading Catch-22 (1961) when I was about 17.
Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Joyce, and Ron are The Thursday Murder Club — denizens of Coopers Chase retirement home who meet once a week to discuss possible solutions to the police ‘Cold Case’ files they, er, have access to. When one of the people involved in the potential expansion of the retirement home is bludgeoned to death, these four will take it upon themselves to solve the case…and that’s essentially it: a more twee-ly and comfortably British setup you couldn’t ask for, to the extent that it seems sort of incredible that more of this kind of thing hasn’t been done before.
In the wrong hands, this is a four-page joke that veers uncomfortably between condescension and mawkishness, with occasional pratfalls and some lazy comedy about being old. Richard Osman, who I imagine is something of an unknown quantity outside of the UK while being something of a national treasure within in, is thankfully far more intelligent than that. Yes, it’s a little bit twee here and there; yes, it gets just the tiniest bit mawkish at times, but there’s genuine heart underneath it (the final line of chapter 65, say, is rather beautiful) and it would be a pertinaciously rigid mind that couldn’t be won over by the version of reality painted here.
It helps that the book is so long on characters. Not just the central four — and I rather feel that the chapters from Joyce’s diary, largely redundant to the plot, are there solely as an attempt to fill her out as fully as the others — but also in the people who surround them. For all of Elizabeth’s shady past giving them access to materials and connections that enable the Club to stay abreast (and ahead) of the police investigation, it’s former union man Ron, seemingly committing his life to lost cause after lost cause (“A man less indefatigable than Ron might have considered himself a jinx” we’re drily informed after a list of his, er, accomplishments) and his ex-boxer son Jason who are the lynchpin of the whole thing — bringing into the orbit of the others the necessary complex web of relationships that end up holding the whole plot together. Once in the Club’s orbit, too, the series of relationships fostered so easily and genuinely is lovely to watch — odd-job man Bogdan being drawn to Elizabeth and her husband, for one — and augurs well for the collective possibilities of this series going forward.
It’s in the realisation of DCI Chris Hudson that the book really flies for me, though. From the very first there’s a delicate line walked with Chris — he’s essentially a likeable character, but Osman hints at the unhappiness that lingers around him in a way that makes his adoption by the Club feel weirdly natural. Chris Hudson is looking for something frustratingly out of his reach in the way that the Club could be frustrated by being denied access to the information he can provide and, while not wishing to get too analytical about it, this is the relationship that drives the book. (W)PC Donna De Freitas has simpler immediate needs (to be professionally recognised and valued) as does Ian Ventham, the owner of Coopers Chase (to make money and be seen as successful), but Chris is more of a long-term project, and Osman’s recognition of this — and how his growing involvement with Donna pays off at the end — is simply magnificent.
Also, his induction into the Club in chapter 29 might be one of the funniest things I’ve read in the last 20 years; it’s no exaggeration when I call it helpless laughter, this one really got me. Indeed, the tiny comedic touches that persist throughout — being able to look anything up on Wikipedia, the steady gentrification of a town high street, or the obsession with the quality of supermarket goods — are themselves perfectly British and yet gloriously universal in how they’re realised. Osman has always come across as an incisively witty man on television, and I’m delighted that the urge to create huge comedic set-pieces has been avoided and instead this gentle adding of absurdity among the flashes of seriousness, so that the contrasts hit you as they would in real life, is the approach taken here. It’s wonderful to see this on not just the page but so many of them, because it is so, so difficult to sustain.
We should really get to the plot, eh?
Red herrings abound, and the only real shame of the whole thing is that so much more is done to prepare you for — or perhaps mislead you into — them than for the eventual solution. If you want false solutions, you got ’em, because there’s a wonderfully light touch that provides some subtle pointers for things that aren’t the answer (I was wrong-footed at least once, having thought I was being very clever). The eventual answers when they come, while good and born out of so much of the great character foundation laid above, do just sort of appear, however. The solution to the first murder is…presented, with no understanding of how it was reached, (and — VERY SLIGHT ROT13 SPOILERS — gur zbgvir sbe gur frpbaq fheryl qbrfa’g znxr frafr…). It’s a minor gripe, and understandable in a first novel — especially one with the layers this has — and one of the few complaints that could be levelled here.
Overall, though, this a resounding success; a melding of the British facade of propriety of Morse, the bonhomie of Wodehouse, the erudition of Sayers, and a stir — just a stir, mind you; maybe half a sugar, mindful of Ron’s diabetes — of Georges Simenon’s heartbreakingly grounded realism. And yet it emerges as something all of its own, growing out of grand traditions while finding interesting things to do with them and vastly entertaining patterns to put them into. A second book is promised, and you can sign me up right now.
“Fine, Jim” you cry, “but what does the post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo Card look like for this one…?!”. Well, here you go…
Bodes well for the future, methinks.