Few places would seem safer than an upscale retirement village in the British countryside.
So you might think. But then why is Coopers Chase the home of something called the Thursday Murder Club?
That’s also the name of the internationally bestselling series of crime capers by Richard Osman, the third of which, “The Bullet That Missed,” is about to land in bookstores.
This latest foray by the club’s members has all the wit, charm and clever plot twists that made the first two such successes — the first, titled “The Thursday Murder Club,” broke the U.K. record for bestselling debut novel.
Osman might not be as well known in the U.S., but he was already a TV star in the U.K., familiar as the quick-witted host of quiz shows like “Pointless.” His books became such hits he has stepped down from daily TV to spend more time writing.
Steven Spielberg has optioned the first book, and Osman said in a recent interview that people on the street shout out their casting suggestions for his characters: “Helen Mirren! Julie Walters!”
Those lively characters, all Coopers Chase residents, are the key to the series’ success. Joyce Meadowcroft is a retired nurse who lives with Alan, an “indeterminate terrier” she got from a rescue group. Ron Ritchie had a long and public career as a trade union leader; now his main passion is football. (He has a West Ham team tattoo on his neck.) Ibrahim Arif is a mostly retired psychiatrist, thoughtful and deliberate and, if he does say so himself, a “handsome” man.
As for Elizabeth Best, as Joyce (whose diary entries form some chapters) said in the first book, “I’m not supposed to say what Elizabeth used to do for a living, even though she does go on about it herself at times. Suffice it to say, though, that murders and investigations and what have you wouldn’t be unfamiliar work for her.”
By the time we get to “The Bullet That Missed” it’s known within the club and beyond that her former career was in “MI5 or MI6,” branches of the British intelligence services. She’s still quite handy with a gun, and certain enigmatic characters from her past turn up in the books to help the plots thicken.
“The Bullet That Missed,” however, is kicked off by Joyce in a setting Osman knows well: a TV studio. The Thursday Murder Club was formed to investigate cold cases, though they tend to heat up when the four dig into them. Joyce’s latest proposal is the case of Bethany Waites, a local newscaster who was investigating a massive tax fraud scheme a decade ago when her car went off a cliff into the sea.
Her body was never found, and her whereabouts in the hours before the car took a nosedive are unknown. Joyce thinks it’s intriguing, and she thinks the place to start is for the club members to wangle their way into the station where Bethany worked to interview her on-air partner, Mike Waghorn. He’s a beloved local celebrity, a handsome fellow approaching retirement age himself. Never mind that Joyce has a crush on him (Joyce has many crushes), he is a logical starting point.
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So she parlays Ron’s now-faded celebrity as a union activist into an interview with Mike, who is eager to be involved once he hears what the club is really up to — he’s been haunted by Bethany’s death.
The club also has help from several unretired people. Donna De Freitas and Chris Hudson are local police officers who work together; she’s young and ambitious, he’s middle-aged and used to be less energetic, but now he’s dating Donna’s mother, Patrice, and madly in love.
And there’s Bogdan Jankowski, a Polish immigrant who works as a construction supervisor and has all sorts of unexpected but handy talents, like acquiring guns and digging graves and playing chess with Elizabeth’s husband, Stephen (which isn’t as simple as it might seem).
The investigation of Bethany’s death turns up almost too many suspects, and other events distract the club’s members from it at times. Notable among them: While Elizabeth and Stephen are out walking one evening, they’re abducted, blindfolded and delivered to the remote house of a money launderer dubbed the Viking, who has a request, or rather an order, that puts Elizabeth in a terrible position.
Pauline, Mike Waghorn’s makeup artist, joins in the Waites investigation when she starts dating Ron, and she describes her experience with the club this way: “I’ve known you for just over two weeks, and I’ve already been in a grave with a KGB colonel, I’ve seen a tiny, old woman drug a Viking, and I’ve shared a bed with the most handsome man in Kent. For three or four years in the eighties I did a lot of magic mushrooms. I once did LSD in Bratislava with Iron Maiden. But nothing — nothing I’ve ever done — compares to a couple of days in your company.”
And the book’s not nearly over at that point. Just when the reader — and the characters — think it’s all figured out, Osman gives the plot another twist, and another.
It’s refreshing to see an author center older people in crime fiction without patronizing them. Indeed, being old is their superpower — Joyce and Elizabeth, in particular, are acutely aware that people see them as harmless little old ladies, and they happily take every advantage of it.
Osman doesn’t sugarcoat aging, though. The most moving relationship in the book is between steely Elizabeth and her bright, kind husband. “Stephen’s dementia is getting worse, Elizabeth knows that. But the more he slips from her grasp, the tighter she wants to hold him. If she is looking at him, surely he can’t disappear?”
As swiftly paced, exciting and witty as “The Bullet That Missed” is, there’s a scene near its end, simple on the surface, between Stephen and Bogdan that brought me to tears, and that I’ll remember.
The Bullet That Missed
By Richard Osman
Pamela Dorman Books, 352 pages, $27