Sunday Times, 29 August 2021
The Man Who Died Twice (Viking £18.99)
Richard Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club, was last year’s publishing sensation — and a mystery in its own right. It was simultaneously the fastest-selling crime debut since records began, shooting to No 1 in the bestseller charts, and a novel so flawed that it is hard to believe it would ever have been published without a celebrity’s name on the cover. Now his second, The Man Who Died Twice, looks set for success on the same scale.
Osman has stuck to a winning formula with his new book, setting it in the upmarket retirement village in Kent he invented for the first. It has, too, the same central characters, a quartet of sparky elderly people who amuse themselves by trying to solve cold murder cases. This time the plot revolves around the sudden reappearance of the ex-husband of Elizabeth, the retired MI5 agent who is always making oblique references to her colourful past. (Think a female James Bond, stuck in a retirement home in the home counties, and you get the idea.) The ex is on the run after stealing diamonds worth £20 million from a money launderer, a plot so hackneyed that it is hard to read without yawning.
Like the earlier novel, The Man Who Died Twice is an easy read. Osman is a familiar, engaging face from TV, and he has also benefited from an accident of timing that might explain much about his success, making his crime fiction debut last September at a moment when people had endured months of lockdowns and painful separations from relatives. The news might be full of grim stories about elderly people dying in care homes, but both books offer an idealised vision of old age. The central characters are in their seventies or eighties, but retain all their faculties and do not appear to have any financial problems as they run rings around the police.
Readers of the first novel will remember Ron, the fiery former trade union leader who has mellowed under the influence of his new friends. Ibrahim is a psychiatrist and the group’s intellectual. Finally there is Joyce, a former nurse and the most self-deprecating member of the group. With her endless digressions into trivia, she is also the character whose antecedents in crime fiction are most immediately recognisable.
In 1927 Agatha Christie introduced what would become one of her best-loved characters, Miss Marple, in a short story that later evolved into The Thirteen Problems. The book has a group of upper-middle-class friends gathering every Tuesday evening to discuss an unsolved murder; the American edition, published in 1933, is actually called The Tuesday Club Murders. Christie describes Miss Marple as “a pink and white pretty old lady who, although having led the most sheltered and Victorian of lives, nevertheless always appeared to be intimately acquainted with all the depths of human depravity”.
Osman’s Joyce is a modern-day equivalent of Miss Marple, as unshockable as Christie’s original but with some knowing and slightly anachronistic contemporary touches. At one point in the new novel she wishes there might be a gay affair in the retirement village: “We haven’t had one of those at Coopers Chase yet, and I
think everyone would enjoy it.” Osman seems strikingly keen on ticking all the diversity boxes, but it sits oddly in what can only be described as a tediously old-fashioned caper.
What is clear after reading both novels is that Osman is a very much a one-trick pony, whose chief device is subverting expectations about the elderly in a series of attention-grabbing asides. “She has heard all sorts over the years,” he writes of Elizabeth. “A snippet of conversation in a Berlin bar, a loose-lipped Russian sailor on shore leave in Tripoli.” Don’t expect to find out what the sailor said, though, because I doubt whether Osman knows himself.
He is essentially writing soap opera, and there is nothing wrong with that, but his characters are paper-thin. Ron is the only working-class character in the club and he turns out to be a bit of a thug, while Ibrahim might as well be called John for all we discover about his background. Most striking of all, however, are the murders, which hardly matter, acting as little more than devices to keep the whole thing going.
The most paradoxical thing about Osman’s success is that he is not really a crime writer at all. The Thursday Murder Club would not feature in my top 50 crime novels for 2020, let alone the top ten, and the new book is even weaker. Osman does not take murder seriously, dispatching characters with careless abandon, and both novels lack the underlying moral seriousness that is an essential ingredient of the best crime fiction.
There is no doubt that Osman is a phenomenon, but that says more about
the relationship between celebrity and publishing than it does about his writing. I suspect these are novels for readers who do not normally like crime fiction — and there appear to be plenty of those.