Anyone who didn’t buy Richard Osman’s second novel The Man Who Died Twice (2021) when it came out last year probably got it for Christmas, and you’ve doubtless read it by now. I actually read it just before Christmas, but it’s taken me a long time to order my thoughts regarding this second visit to the septuagenarian denizens of Cooper’s Chase retirement village. On one hand, I can see how millions of people around the world will be completely charmed by Osman’s whimsy; on the other, the plot here only really occupies the last 70 pages, with the rest of the book filled out by padding of the most egregious hue and stripe.
In the acknowledgements — there’s a first, starting a review by not even talking about the fictional part of a novel — Osman spoils one of the best thrillers of the 1990s without giving away the title of the book: instead, he tells you the twist in its final line that informed pretty much all the preceding action in that book, and says that he liked the idea of the last line being integral to the plot. The implication is that he thinks he’s done this with the final line of The Man Who Died Twice, which sort of sums up the book as a whole. The last line is lovely, and has a warmth and big-heartedness to it that betokens the appeal of Osman’s writing, but to imply that the entire book happened on account of that information…no. Just…no.
But then the plotting here is staggeringly loose. Look at — with mild spoilers, but I know you’ve read this — the whole Ryan Baird arc: he attacks Ibrahim, so the Thursday Murder Club plant £10,000 of cocaine on him, and PC Donna De Freitas and DCI Chris Hudson arrest him and then immediately let him go with no intent of pursuing the matter. He runs away to Scotland. Then he’s pulled back in to the dénouement simply because some sort of payback is wanted…so what was the point of corrupting these characters by having them (one of them’s a DCI, for pity’s sake!) party to the planting of evidence and false arrest? If these were supposedly corrupt or unlikeable people, fine, but we’ve spent time with Donna cringing at Chris dating her mum and sharing hilarious asides about a colleague accidentally sending pictures of their penis to someone… so it’s jarring, and all the more on account of its (ahem) pointlessness.
Yet it would take a spectacularly unfeeling reader to dismiss this book purely on the deficiencies of its plotting. Osman has a superbly deft way with characters, even if they do tend to be a little one-note: on first appearance drug queenpin Connie Johnson is simply wonderful, but she never evolves much beyond mooning after handyman Bogdan (Bogdan’s also wonderful, I’d read an entire book of just Bogdan, but when your criminal mastermind permanently behaves like a love-sick teen you’ve done something wrong); Ibrahim’s interview following his attack (“I don’t remember much Chris…”) will have had you grinning from ear to ear, but aside from some humorous reflections…
Things would get back to normal. The brain is tremendously clever, one of the reasons Ibrahim likes it so much. Your foot was your foot and would remain your foot through thick and thin. But the brain changes, in form and in function. Ibrahim has respect for podiatrists, but really, looking at feet all day?
…he sits around and does little else; and, personally, I can do without Joyce — oh, I know, you love her, but I find the diary chapters from her perspective, while well-observed, tedious in the extreme. And the extended Instagram joke feels more than a little condescending — snort, old people don’t know about sex…lawks, can you imagine?!
The book only really needs Elizabeth and Ron, and they’re easily the best things in this (alongside Bogdan, of course; good ol’ Bogdan). Perhaps the biggest laugh in the whole book comes from Elizabeth’s justification in the face of Ron’s indignation when he learns that she called Joyce instead of him to help with a dead body:
“I knew that both of you would want to see the corpse, that was a given. So I was left with a simple choice between a woman with forty years of nursing experience and a man in a football top who would bang on about Michael Foot the moment MI5 arrived.”
See? It’s in moments like this that Osman really flies, and since his characters can veer into the absurd — and he has a great ear for the naturalistic flow of dialogue — he leans into it again and again. But familiarity both lessens the comedic effect (everyone gets a humorous aside every five pages) and results in a similar plotting looseness that probably wasn’t addressed because the first one sold over a million copies and this one’s doubtless going to do the same. Some brilliant conceits (the nom de guerre of a fictional drug dealer getting no hits on Google being seen as a good thing because is means they’re “dealing with a pro”, say) glitter magnificently throughout this, but a sky full of stars does not dazzling daylight make.
The sheer complexity of the various plot threads in Osman’s debut was heartening, and here he’s eased back on that aspect to give his characters more space to breathe. A plot fiend such as myself is always going to be disappointed by such a development, especially when so much of that breathing has the reek of halitosis about it, and we’ll have to wait for book 3 to see which way Osman is going to jump. I’d happily take a longer wait between books to ensure the plots were up to par, since the numbers they sell in are guaranteed to make someone’s Christmas bonus swell, but then what do I know? When Osman gets it right, such as the meaning behind the title when it appears in the text, he demonstrates a dextrous understanding of the humanity that drives so much of what he writes, and that’s possibly more important.
See you later in the year for Book 3, I guess.
The Thursday Murder Club series:
- The Thursday Murder Club (2020)
- The Man Who Died Twice (2021)
Don’t forget to vote in the Agatha Christie Spoiler Warning poll — results on 5th February, make sure your voice is heard…!
17 thoughts on “#861: The Man Who Died Twice (2021) by Richard Osman”
I got given the first one for Christmas last year but have still not read it (my reading has gone completely up the spout since Covid, takes me weeks to actually finish any fiction book). He’ll probably have published a fourth in the series before I get round to even this second one, so after your review shall consider this to be on the very back of the back burner. Thanks mate.
Of course you got given it for Christmas; I was given two copies at Christmas and I’d already read it (and, indeed, discussed it with one of the people who gave it to me 😄).
You might be better off waiting even longer — by the time the fourth one comes out, you’ll know if it’s even worth starting the first. I can see what appeals about his writing to the masses — and, hey, we’d all love to be this widely read — but we nerds deep in a genre are notoriously hard to please. Sometimes I wish I could just let it go and enjoy things, but it seems that’s not my lot in life…!
Do what I do, chill and watch some classic Doctor Who instead!
You think I’ve got time to watch TV? With my TBR pile?!
Chillax dude 😆
Thanks for the review, JJ. 😊 Sometime last year I drew out from the local library the first Osman novel, together with the then-latest novels by Horowitz and Galbraith, and reading them in proximity made for an interesting and clarifying experience. 🧐
Certainly Osman tells a cracking story, but the novel was ultimately strongest in matters of characterisation and situation, and not mystification. The sort of puzzle that was offered up in the Horowitz and the Galbraith novels was more my cup of tea. 🫖🍵
I’ve never read any Galbraith — they’re always so long and it (ahem) strikes me that there will be a lot of Personal Issues in the books…though that might just be because of what happened in the later Harry Potter books. Would you recommend any in particular?
And, yeah, if the mystification of the first didn’t work for you, this one can be missed. The characters definitely predominate, which plot-fiends like ourselves will find tiresome.
I confess I found one or two characters in Thursday Murder Club slightly… less endearing. 😅 I won’t be in a rush to pick up the second instalment then! There’s a huge queue for it in my local library.
As for Galbraith, all of the novels are longer than what I’d prefer, and the later ones are definitely way longer, veering towards 1000 pages. But from memory most of the mysteries do have a fair-play puzzle at their centre. (Though the length of the novels renders it well-nigh impossible for the reader to remember the clues, much less sift through the evidence from the red herrings. 😓)
There are quite a few personal issues involved, but I’ve grown to (broadly) enjoy the company of the two leads. This, coupled with the fair-play puzzles, has kept me persevering through the gargantuan page counts… 😅
1,000 pages is too long, I think I’ll give them a miss Even Bleak House didn’t need to be 1,000 pages — George Rouncewell, I want that time back!!!
Oh, of course you WOULD pick the most boring character when the other 392 are delectable! Reading Bleak House was the most joyful year and a half I ever spent, so watch yourself, mister.
Oh, god, I’m not going about how boring parts in books shouldn’t be in those books again, am I? God, what a broken record I am…
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I held back from buying the second one given my misgivings with the first which I read. Steve’s review of the second did not convince me to give the second one a try and I must say your review definitely makes me feel like I made the right choice! It’s a shame he hasn’t improved plotting/pacing.
Do you think you will buy the third book?
The first 20 and last 70 pages would make a lovely between-books novella, like Ben Aaronovitch has started doing of late, but as a novel this is a definite step down.
I don’t know if I’ll buy the third one, no. Borrow it from the library, probably, because I would love to see the plot potential of the first one fulfilled. My financial commitments shall be going elsewhere, however 🙂
Ah, the masses! These are the folks who say, “Oh, you want BOOKS for Christmas? You like MYSTERIES??,” and then they gift you with the 2021 best-selling title from James Patterson – all sixteen of them! No, my family doesn’t bother giving me books: I received two spoon rests and six different kinds of bathroom scent.
I thought the first Osman was fun, but my 87-year-old mother found it kind of insulting, and I can see her point. Quirky fun old people solving crimes? Underestimated by the cops, taken advantage of by the landlord, they triumph because of their built-in sage wisdom and their cranky cuteness. It’s The Snoop Sisters all over again. My mom thought it was all pish tosh.
There are too many good series out there for me to commit to something like this. (And you just KNOW that by book four or five, one of these seniors will get killed off and then it gets personal . . . )
Whereas I, a spoon rest connoisseur, am desperate for something more interesting than the standard “patterned bit of shaped plastic” — good heavens, do these people think I’m a barbarian??
Thanks for taking up the cutlery, plastic or otherwise, for this detailed appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the series. I had the vague hope that the example of Anthony Horowitz’s very successful return to classic ingenuity and cluing might help lead a trend back to those virtues. It seems, though, that most other more mainstream modern writers, lacking the contemporaneous immersion enjoyed by writers in the GAD era–and Horowitz’s Christie-adaptation background–are understandably a little clumsy when trying to head in that direction. (Martin Edwards is, of course, a notable exception!)
Thankfully everything goes in cycles, so maybe there will be some good work done with detection over the next few years and we’ll live to see a new era of clues and proper investigation.
I understand the direction modern crime and thrillers have taken, but nothing is forever. Vive la revolucion!!