Last year, BBC quiz show presenter Richard Osman swapped broadcasting for fiction-writing and delighted crime novel aficionados with his debut mystery. "The Thursday Murder Club" introduced four senior citizens who investigate unsolved killings from the comfort of Coopers Chase, their plush retirement village in the Kent countryside. When the body of a local builder turns up, the elderly sleuths throw themselves into their first live case involving "a real corpse" and a culprit within their community.
Fun and ingenious, Osman's novel provided welcome escapist relief during lockdown. What's more, his aging yet quietly formidable amateur detectives made for original heroes, and helped demonstrate that, in this genre, characterization is just as important as plot. The book could have been a one-hit wonder. Fortunately, Osman has envisaged a series, and has now brought his septuagenarian quartet back for a sequel.
"The Man Who Died Twice" begins on the Thursday after Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron have solved their first big mystery. They reconvene to look into a cold case — until, once again, one comes along that is blazing hot.
Elizabeth receives a letter from a man whose drowned body was pulled out of the Thames 30 years ago. This blast from her past needs "babysitting" after making a serious error of judgment — namely stealing 20 million pounds' worth of diamonds from a ruthless international money launderer.
Douglas — once a dead man and now a wanted one — hides out and lies low in Coopers Chase but is eventually forced to break cover after a botched attempt on his life. When two spies are murdered in a safe house and the pilfered diamonds go missing, Elizabeth and her friends follow a trail of cryptic clues to find both the killer and the gemstones. But can they outfox an unknown enemy who will stop at nothing to get what they want?
Osman's enthralling crime caper is made up of various strands. We dip in and out of the lives of police officers, drug dealers, Secret Service operatives, a New York mafia boss and a Polish builder. But whether acting individually or pooling together, it is the animated Thursday Murder Club members who keep us turning the pages.
Team leader Elizabeth still has the tradecraft and the contacts from her years as a spook; Joyce is the compassionate and deceptively dotty ex-nurse; Ibrahim is the soul-searching former psychiatrist, and tattooed soccer fan "Red" Ron has a big mouth and a bigger heart.
In places, Elizabeth and Joyce resemble a crime-busting double act, and Ibrahim and Ron feel underused. On the plus side, Osman blends humor and pathos while weaving his tangled web of intrigue and deception.
This is the perfect book with which to unwind. Joyce knows all about relaxation: "It is important to stop sometimes, and just have a drink and a gossip with friends," she says, "even as corpses start to pile up around you."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Man Who Died Twice
By: Richard Osman.
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books, 368 pages, $26.