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…!