Deep in the lush, rolling countryside of Kent, the Garden of England, lies the luxurious Coopers Chase Retirement Village. Once a week, four friends there, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron — the Thursday Murder Club — meet in the Jigsaw Room to investigate unsolved killings. Each contributes something different but all are united in their determination to get to the bottom of a violent crime that once baffled the police and enabled someone to get away with murder.
When Tony Curran, a local builder with a dubious past, is found bludgeoned to death, the aged sleuths find themselves immersed in their first live case, one with “a real corpse, and somewhere out there, a real killer.” Their inquiries throw up a range of suspects which include a rival Polish builder, a lapsed priest, Ron’s boxer son, and Curran’s erstwhile business partner, the shady and slippery property developer Ian Ventham.
But then Ventham falls dead, and in full view of a crowd of Coopers Chase residents. After confirming foul play, the “little gang” find themselves tracking two killers and wondering if one of them might lurk within their community.
The author, Richard Osman, is a quiz show presenter on British television. He is also a devotee of crime fiction. For this, his debut novel, he has drawn on his knowledge of trivia along with the tricks of the trade of the murder-mystery genre, from the Golden Age of detective fiction to the present day. In addition, he blends in many of his own unique touches that render the proceedings fiendishly clever and brilliantly funny.
The whole narrative is held together and driven forward by its perfectly formed characters. All four members of the crime-busting quartet pull their weight: Elizabeth, a spy in a past life, is plucky and resourceful; Ibrahim, a former psychiatrist, is fastidious and methodical; firebrand Ron has a warm heart and a hot head; and ex-nurse Joyce exudes friendliness and compassion.
We get to know Joyce best, thanks to her scattered diary entries. When not informing us about a successfully baked lemon drizzle cake or the pleasure of drinking gin and tonic in a can, she keeps us updated on the unfolding case and provides insight into those connected with it.
“The Thursday Murder Club” is a compelling whodunit complete with red herrings, unexpected twists, and a pair of police officers who, despite their best efforts, always manage to be one step behind their amateur counterparts. At the same time, and without reducing any of his carefully built-up momentum, Osman allows his main characters to experience senior moments or reflect on growing old. There is regular humor but also bouts of tragicomedy (“I’d welcome a burglar. It would be nice to have a visitor”) and moments of real poignancy.
Fortunately, this is no stand-alone mystery but rather the start of a series. Osman has devised an original concept and crafted a quite wonderful first installment.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Thursday Murder Club
By: Richard Osman.
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books, 368 pages, $26.