In an early chapter of Richard Osman’s “The Last Devil to Die,” retired nurse and eternal optimist Joyce Meadowcroft writes in her diary on Dec. 26, “I feel like I should drink to something, so I suppose let’s drink to ‘No murders next year.’”
Oh, Joyce. You know better by now. And do mind the heroin dealers, dear.
Joyce is one of the intrepid quartet of septuagenerians who make up the Thursday Murder Club, the name of Osman’s hugely bestselling mystery series, taken from the first book’s title.
“The Last Devil to Die” is the fourth in the series, after “The Man Who Died Twice” and “The Bullet That Missed,” and it delivers the same kind of clever dialogue, colorful characters and corkscrew plotting that made the other books so much fun.
The Murder Club members are the heart of the books: widowed, cheerful, chatty Joyce; former union leader turned passionate football fan (West Ham!) Ron Ritchie; and Ibrahim Arif, a thoughtful Egyptian psychiatrist with a tendency to overexplain things.
And Elizabeth. Once a legendary MI5 agent, Elizabeth Best looks like a nice old lady but still packs a gun in her purse (a rarity in England) and could toss James Bond over her shoulder without breaking a sweat. Joyce notes that another character who meets Elizabeth “feels terrified and thrilled in equal measure. Which, I suppose, is also how I’ve felt nonstop since I met Elizabeth.”
He’s not nearly old enough to be retired, but the club’s indispensable sidekick is a Polish construction supervisor named Bogdan Jankowski, who provides muscle, brains and a tender heart.
The Murder Club began as a sort of game at Coopers Chase, the posh rural retirement village where the four main characters live. They started out rehashing cold cases, but still-warm bodies kept turning up.
In “The Last Devil to Die,” the newly murdered victim is someone they know. Kuldesh Sharma is a local antiques dealer, about the same age as the club members, a pleasant man who’s a friend of Elizabeth’s husband, Stephen.
On the very slow business day after Christmas, a stranger in an “exquisite” overcoat comes into Kuldesh’s shop with an ugly little terra-cotta box.
“I’m not buying, I’m afraid,” he says. But the stranger explains he just wants Kuldesh to hold the box until someone else comes to pick it up the next day — and pay Kuldesh 500 pounds for his trouble.
It’s a lot more trouble than he bargained for. A few days later, Kuldesh’s body is found in his car, parked on a secluded country lane. One gunshot wound to the head, execution style.
Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim have been busy trying to convince a new neighbor named Mervyn that the beautiful Lithuanian woman he’s been corresponding with online — and to whom he’s already sent 5,000 pounds — is not going to show up on his doorstep if he just sends her a few thousand more. (Joyce appreciates the romance fraud case as “a bit less murdery.”)
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Mervyn believes in love, though, so they bring in their friend Donna De Freitas, a local cop, to help. But Donna and her partner on the force, Chris Hudson, are soon busy with the murder of Kuldesh, whose shop has been searched and left in shambles. And then the Murder Club starts investigating, especially after the case is snatched away from Donna and Chris by Jill Regan, a senior officer from the National Crime Agency.
As happens in Osman’s novels, the suspects start to pile up. There’s a pair of rival drug dealers who have been friends since childhood, not to mention Ibrahim’s patient Connie Johnson, a major cocaine dealer. She’s serving time but still runs her business (and sees her psychiatrist) in her cell.
Also in the mix are Samantha Barnes and her husband, Garth. They run another antiques business, but Samantha is also a brilliant forger of art — she forges not only Banksy’s works but the eccentric certificates of authenticity that come with them — and Garth is a giant, bearded Canadian who often threatens to throw people out windows and means it.
And why did Kuldesh make a call just before he died to Nina Mishra, a young archeology professor who’s known him since she was a kid? Nina hates her teaching job, and Osman demonstrates why in a hilarious scene in which she’s trying to deal with an extremely privileged student “wearing a Nirvana T-shirt, despite being born many years after Kurt Cobain died. They are discussing an essay he hasn’t written.”
Like all of the Thursday Murder Club books, this one alternates between shocking plot twists and witty dialogue, the latter a skill Osman no doubt learned in his first career as a popular game show host and comedian in the U.K.
But “The Last Devil to Die” has serious business at its heart. Readers have watched Elizabeth’s charming, handsome, doting husband, Stephen, sinking into dementia over the course of the earlier books. In this one that terrible form of death before dying becomes heartbreakingly important, and Osman writes about it with tremendous grace.
As you reach the last chapters of this book, you’ll think you’ve figured out the mystery. You’ll think so several times. But Osman and the Thursday Murder Club will keep the surprises coming.
The Last Devil to Die
By Richard Osman
Pamela Dornan Books, 368 pages, $29