Older people are more often portrayed as crime victims than crime solvers, even in the genre of cozy mysteries. Richard Osman’s “The Thursday Murder Club” turns that stereotype on its head with a droll tale of four septuagenarians who meet weekly to solve cold cases culled from the files of a retired police detective.
The group includes a psychiatrist, a nurse, a union organizer, and a woman who did something mysterious in intelligence. All four live at Coopers Chase, an upscale retirement community on the grounds of a former convent in the English countryside. It’s a place with a superior restaurant, Pilates classes, lovely views, and a treasure-trove of hidden secrets.
We first meet this bunch as they discuss cold cases, but soon the four are involved in solving the murder of the establishment’s developer, drawing the local police detectives into their efforts to find the culprit. Using their specialized knowledge and skills, they manage to unearth serious malfeasance while skating just on the inside edge of the law. The occasional memory lapse aside, they prove themselves capable of (sometimes literally) digging up clues where the actual detectives would not think to look.
Their efforts are helped by Donna, a police constable who fled London with a broken heart and spends most of her time giving talks about security to pensioners or making tea for the lads at the station. The Thursday Murder Club puts her talents to better use and soon she is sharing bits of information with the group, which is reciprocated.
The bodies begin to pile up when another of the retirement community’s owners is murdered and a possible homicide from decades earlier is uncovered. The plot sometimes gets a bit fussy, but Osman detangles the interwoven strands as the crimes are solved, even if a few incidents remain deliberately hidden by the senior sleuths.
Humor is everywhere, and it is very British – smart and a little prickly – but it would not be lost on an American audience.
The wit and the plot will bring readers back for more of this series, but what is truly memorable is the kindness and respect with which these friends treat one another and those they encounter. They have lived long lives, and they know that you can get a lot of mileage out of a cup of tea, a good lemon drizzle cake, and young people’s assumptions that older folks are a bit doddering. Of course, Donna, her partner, and the detective chief inspector fall for that trap only once, but it is a feint that comes in handy while collecting clues from unsuspecting suspects.
What surprises are the bittersweet moments, the more somber scenes dealing with aging and death and outliving partners and friends. After one such evening, one of the four “walks out into the darkness. A quiet, cloudless night. A night so dark you think you might never see morning again.”
“The Thursday Murder Club” is a mystery, but it can also be seen as a novel about friendship and longing and coming to terms with who we are, making it much more substantive than your average whodunit.
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