The Thursday Murder Club
Richard Osman

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers, up to and including the ending. Other reviews in this series can be found here.

I have a rocky relationship with mysteries. There was maybe about a month where I thought I would be super into cozy mysteries but it didn’t really pan out, and, after The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and Dear Child, I stopped picking up mysteries altogether. Then for my birthday this year I received the first two books in the Thursday Murder Club series and I am fully hooked because this first installment was pretty much everything I want from a cozy mystery, though admittedly the writing could be better.

The Thursday Murder Club is a four-person gang of bored septuagenarians who all live in the same British retirement community (Coopers Chase) and get together on Thursdays to try to solve cold cases. They are led by Elizabeth Best, who is either a former spy or something equivalent, and who recruited them all to begin with: Penny Gray, a detective inspector; Ibrahim Arif, a therapist; Ron “Red Ron” Ritchie, a union organizer; and, more recently, Joyce Meadowcroft, a nurse who was invited to join the club when Penny went into hospice care. (I should add that this book is a little depressing, but, well, the majority of the protagonists are pushing 80. It happens.) The main story is interspersed with diary entries written by Joyce as she navigates her new friends and their all-consuming hobby. Despite Elizabeth’s extensive network of professional contacts, this hobby is largely theoretical until the day Ian Ventham, the health-obsessed, penny-pinching founder of Coopers Chase, decides to replace Tony Curran, his right-hand man, with the much cheaper Bogdan Jankowski. His fears about a murderous reprisal from Tony turn out to be groundless: that is, Tony fully intends to kill him, but he’s not as young as used to be, and he is unexpectedly murdered before he can remember what he did with his gun. This seems like a lucky break for Ian until he is murdered on the day he was planning to dig up the graveyard attached to Coopers Chase, and all hell breaks loose among the very excited Thursday Murder Club. Elizabeth leads the charge, of course, nominally shepherded by actual police officers Madonna “Donna” De Freitas and Chris Hudson, who cautiously befriend each other while also letting themselves be drawn into the world of four murder-obsessed retirees.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other suspicious goings-on at Coopers Chase: Bernard Cottle, another resident who is not affiliated with the club, seems to have a dark secret up his sleeve; Bogdan digs up a coffin containing two bodies, one of which died far more recently than the original occupant; Ron’s son Jason is a suspect, and has ties to at least two other known criminals; Penny’s husband John knows more than he lets on; and Father Matthew Mackie, a former employee of the church that eventually became Coopers Chase, has an agenda of his own. The gleeful Thursday gang wades straight into the mess, and, despite the chaos, eventually realizes that John murdered Ian in an effort to protect Penny, who is responsible for the second corpse in Bogdan’s two-person coffin. When confronted by Elizabeth, John admits to the murder and says his goodbyes to Penny, then euthanizes her quietly before going home to kill himself. Back in Elizabeth’s apartment, her husband Stephen (her third husband, for reasons I don’t know yet) gently confronts Bogdan over a game of chess. Bogdan, an easygoing fellow, casually agrees that he killed Tony, but for reasons other than greed: Tony was partially responsible for the murder of Bogdan’s best friend, and got away with it in a strictly legal sense. The book ends with a final diary entry from Joyce, who speculates on Bogdan’s guilt and also guesses that Elizabeth might have figured it out even though no one has said anything.

For the record, I don’t think Elizabeth knows. While it’s possible she’s letting him go because he is useful or because she has a certain amount of affection for him, I think she’s too straightlaced to let murder slide, especially when she can’t really forgive Penny, her dearest friend, for a murder committed years ago. Elizabeth is extremely fair, and it would be very odd if she let Bogdan get away with murder while ruthlessly sticking it to a couple who probably wouldn’t have made it another five years. And I’ve gotta say, that ending isn’t sitting particularly well with me, because it seems pretty shitty to hold two dying people accountable for something that far in the past. The man Penny killed was not innocent. He stabbed his girlfriend to death but was never convicted for it, and Penny went after him because she had spent her entire career watching bad men get away with murder. Who fucking cares about this dude? If his girlfriend never got legal justice, neither should he. Maybe it was quicker to let John kill Penny rather than letting them both waste away – Penny from dementia, John in prison – but I think it’s a little extreme to order John to say his goodbyes and then wait for the police, with the full knowledge that he will in fact commit suicide before they get there. Is it fair, in a legal sense? Sure. I just don’t think it was particularly kind. Even if Elizabeth wanted to let them end things on their own terms, that isn’t really possible, because Penny is a plant by this point and John is hustled into an early death. It is not the same.

Aside from that blip, I love almost all of the characters. I love Elizabeth and Joyce and Ibrahim and, hell, even kinda Ron. I was so hoping Bogdan wouldn’t turn out to be the murderer because he seems like a really good guy, but I love him too. I love Donna and Chris. I love that their friendship never evolves into romance – I mean, he’s old enough to be her father – and I love that she sets him up with her single mother, who I do believe is going to kick him out of the rut he’s been stuck in for, like, the last couple of decades. I especially love how patient they both are with the Thursday Murder Clubbers, who are funny without being pitiable or stupid. Their methods are hilarious – in one of their earlier meetings with Chris, they squash him onto the least comfortable couch possible and ply him with cake until he does their bidding – but they get results. Even when they admit to doing things that are not strictly legal in pursuit of the truth, they calmly accept the idea of federal charges but also make it known that they are fully prepared to mistake the judge for their granddaughter and tell her she doesn’t visit enough. They’re adorable. I imagine they’d be obnoxious to deal with in real life (especially since Elizabeth is almost always right), and I have to give major props to Donna and Chris for being the kind of people who just roll with it, despite a few hiccups.

Yet even though they are unquestionably competent, they are also undeniably older people who are baffled by technology and political correctness, bake lovely cakes, carry around pictures of their grandchildren, and have trouble convincing their adult children to visit more often. I suspect I’m going to find them more relatable as I grow older, which is slightly troubling, to say the least. Certainly I was able to relate to Tony, in that I too would probably forget where I hid my murder weapon right at the moment I needed it. I’m assuming he’s 50ish, so I’ve got a ways to go before I reach his age, but all the same I found him a little too close to home in some respects, up to and including his surprisingly philosophical acceptance of his own death.

Tony hears the noise a second too late. He turns to see the spanner as it swings toward him. A big one too, real old-school stuff. There’s no way of avoiding the swing, and in the brief moment of realization he has, Tony Curran gets it. You can’t win ’em all, Tony. That’s fair enough, he thinks, that’s fair enough.

I feel like I should reinforce here that Tony is not a good person and he’s gotten away with a lot, which is why I don’t feel bad laughing at his death. Maybe that makes me a bad person. I don’t know. All I know is that this scene was perfect and hilarious, and I’m still laughing. What a way to go.

If there is one thing that really should have been better, it is the writing, which – although it is perfectly fine in most respects – very clearly demonstrates that Osman does not know the difference between present and past tense. His habit of tense-switching mid-sentence is so pervasive that his proofreaders, supposing there were any, should have corrected it. (Which, in combination with Ariadne, is really making me wonder what in hellfire professional proofreaders do all day. I’m assuming they do still exist?) This is a real pity, because otherwise the writing is spot-on. It is absolutely perfect for its genre, and, with this as the first installment, I have great expectations for the rest of the series. As a whole, the book is a sharp, mischievous commentary on business tycoons, the competence of the criminal justice system, the arrogance of professional athletes-turned-movie-stars, and, yes, old people. It’s not the most profound thing you’ll ever read, but it has one job and it does it well. And that’s fair enough.