Today’s review sees me continuing to play catch up with the latest releases, that have come out in the last couple of weeks.
‘In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place on their very doorstep, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?’
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect with this book, though being aware of the elderly nature of our amateur sleuths and their retirement village location I did have images of New Tricks and Waiting for God floating around in the back of my mind. I suppose you could say Osman’s book has elements of these TV series, but by and large I would suggest the novel marks out a path of its own.
Let’s begin with what works well…
Osman has a very confident and engaging writing style. In particular I think he pitched the understated attitude of the elderly sleuthing quartet towards murder and death effectively. This comes across from the very first page when Joyce writes in her diary that:
‘Elizabeth said she could see that I was eating, but wanted to ask me a question about knife wounds, if it wasn’t inconvenient? […] I was asked what sort of knife she had been stabbed with, and Elizabeth said probably just a normal kitchen knife. John Lewis. She didn’t say that, but that was what I pictured. Then she asked me to imagine this girl had been stabbed, three or four times, just under the breastbone. In and out, in and out, very nasty, but without severing an artery. She was fairly quiet the whole thing, because people were eating, and she does have some boundaries.’
Moreover, later in the story Joyce records Elizabeth as saying that ‘we were all witnesses to a murder […] which needless to say is wonderful.’ Naturally occasions such as these provide a gentle, though perhaps at times dark, sense of humour. One of the more memorable scenes from the book, is a home security talk given by a police constable, at the retirement village. Unsurprisingly the residents run amuck during the talk. They are not remotely interested in her rehearsed pieces of information and instead want their wide range of questions answered. The topics of these questions are hilarious in their lack of boundaries and lack of concern over saying the right thing.
As I mentioned above some of the story is narrated through Joyce’s diary excerpts, yet these are interspersed with third person narration. I thought this combination was successful as it gives us the personal perspective yet does not deprive us of a bird’s eye view of the case.
I was not surprised to learn that Osman is going to be making this book into a series, with the second one billeted for next year, as his characters are very much set up for such a sequel, particularly his main police characters, PC Donna De Freitas and DCI Chris Hudson. I enjoyed the relationship dynamic between the four residents of the retirement village, as they have an interesting variety of life experiences and personality traits. It is fun to watch them act outside of conventional rules, much to the exasperation of DCI Hudson. Yet these four are still vulnerable to the problems of old age and I felt this added some emotional resonance to the piece at times. Ibrahim and Ron operate in a comic role, whilst Joyce is seemingly wall flower like, yet has a subtle power to draw people out. Elizabeth is very much the maverick leader you would expect, but you have to accept her for the deus ex machina she is, with her actions behind the scenes very much pulling rabbits out of hats, which enable the case to progress. This is comically done but is a partial weakness of the book.
So to recap the setting up of the first death is well done, with events structured to make it a surprise victim choice. The comic scenes in the beginning of the book also captured the essence of the main characters entertainingly too. Yet the plotting after the initial murder becomes noticeably weaker, due to the minimal investigative components being stretched over a page count they did not warrant. Many pages are consumed with the police and even the amateur sleuths following leads concerning the obvious suspect and the narrative is slow to reveal other possible suspects and motives. A second death did provide Osman with the chance to strengthen the puzzle aspect of the book, but this opportunity is not utilised well.
This is not a book where you can get far ahead of the characters in solving the mystery and as the Puzzle Doctor writes in his own review of this novel, ‘there aren’t really any clues for the reader to spot.’ This in my book is rather problematic for a detective story… So I am rather baffled why one quote on the dust jacket describes this tale as ‘a properly funny murder mystery steeped in Agatha Christie.’ Anyone who has read a Christie novel will know that at her best she was an extraordinary plotter, who deftly weaved her clues into her narratives. In addition, I do not think it was a good idea for the investigation to hinge upon photographs as much as it did. Such visual items are effective in a TV drama, but not overly useful in a book and instead just keep the reader in the dark. There are exceptions of course, such as in Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead.
The solution(s) are not particularly satisfying, coming from the peripheries of the book. They are not solutions you have much investment in as a reader. Worse, they are solutions you have to be told, as you cannot uncover the back stories to the crimes. Osman heavily relies on the guilty extensively confessing their misdeeds and past histories.
Whilst I was not bowled over by the mystery aspects, I think Osman has nevertheless crafted an attention-grabbing cast of characters. The unfolding of the case did not hugely engage me, but the antics of the retirement residents often did. With these strong foundations I can only hope the plotting and cluing will improve for the next book.
See also: The Puzzle Doctor has also reviewed this title here.