As any mother would, Brenda Wright swelled with pride when her son told her that he had written a novel. But her heart sank when he said he had set his story in a retirement village.
Her little boy, Richard Osman, the 6ft 7in co-host of Pointless and presenter of House of Games, has become a literary sensation with his Thursday Murder Club novels. What few know is the extent to which the luxury retirement village setting for the stories is inspired by the plush surroundings in which his mother lives.
Speaking for the first time about Osman’s success as a novelist, his mother said she was “desperately worried” before The Thursday Murder Club was published in September last year, in case his depiction of the elderly characters offended friends at her Sussex retirement village.
She read the book — starring the former intelligence agent Elizabeth, the retired nurse Joyce, the ex-trade union rabble-rouser Ron and the semi-retired psychiatrist Ibrahim — in double-quick time to scan for any insults lurking on its pages.
“When I eventually got a copy … I don’t suppose I even took in the names of people. I’m a pretty fast reader anyway,” Wright said. “I got to the end and I thought there’s nothing in there that could upset anybody, because we’ve got some quite touchy people [here]. I read it through and I thought, ‘Oh, I like this.’ Then I thought I’m going to let as many people as I know, know what’s coming, because I think if you know what’s coming, sometimes you cope with it better.”
She warned the retirement village manager that the fictional owner was murdered early on. To her relief, Wright has not been on the receiving end of any “nasty comments” about the books.
His mother read the book in double-quick time to scan for any insults lurking on its pages.
Osman’s cozy capers, in which the motley crew of pensioners try to solve cold cases and are then put to the test when a real murder lands on their doorstep, are a publishing phenomenon.
His first novel has been on the Sunday Times best-seller list since it was published. The sequel, The Man Who Died Twice, rocketed to the top of the hardback fiction charts, selling more than 114,000 copies and knocking Sally Rooney’s latest novel off the No 1 spot after just one week.
Osman’s new book has become one of the fastest-selling novels since records began. Just four adult hardback novels — by JK Rowling, Harper Lee and two by Dan Brown — sold more in their first week, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Wright’s village will be familiar to those who have read her son’s books. A former convent, there is a cemetery in which nuns are buried, a bowling green, tennis courts and a restaurant on site. A herd of llamas roam the fields while Waitrose vans continually arrive, clinking with bottles.
Rather than convening once a week to try to crack unsolved murders, Wright and her best friends at the village — Shirley Thompson, a former tour operator, Anne Pink, a retired English teacher and Peggy Guggenheim, an ex-trust and estate practitioner — get together each Saturday for dinner, as well as art history discussions on Tuesdays.
There are three book clubs at Wright’s retirement village. She recently left her three friends and their club to start a new one with people who moved in during the pandemic because she found the discussions “somewhat chaotic”, with too little focus on the books. None of the clubs has discussed Osman’s books because they felt it would be a bit odd.
While the village and its people sparked Osman’s imagination, there are no exact parallels to be drawn with Wright and her friends. Instead, Osman was inspired by the setting and snatches of conversation among its residents to use some of their characteristics to create his characters. That said, there are two former MI5 agents who live on the site.
Pink, 87, said: “We can’t decide who’s who.” Thompson, 86, said: “The four main characters are a good amalgam of the people who are here”. Wright said: “Everyone says that he was thinking of so and so, and I say: ‘Well, he doesn’t actually know so and so.’ They are all wrong.”
Mostly, Osman, 50, seems to have been inspired by talking with his mother. “When I’ve told him things, and then it’s repeated, I think, ‘Oh I told you that,’ ” Wright said. “I see my little bits of words all the way through.”
Wright spots her own turns of phrase mainly in the speech and thoughts of Joyce, the self-deprecating former nurse prone to rambling digressions whose diary entries punctuate the third-person narration. Osman dedicated the first book to “the last surviving Brenda”, a nod to the fact that there had been five Brendas at the retirement village before four of them died.
Wright raised Osman and his brother Mat — bassist in the rock band Suede, who also released his debut novel last year — as a single mother after their father left when Osman was nine.
His books’ appeal lies partly in Osman’s warm depiction of elderly characters, contrasting with the way they are often patronized by other authors. Wright said this was because of his upbringing. “Possibly because his dad wasn’t around, his grandfather was a very important role model,” she said. “That’s part of it. He never has this [sense of] ‘Old people don’t know anything.’ ”
There are no exact parallels to be drawn with Osman’s mother and her friends. That said, there are two former MI5 agents who live on the site.
Guggenheim, 84, said that the characters — who drink, have affairs and outdo incompetent police officers — were another positive. “Old ladies are so sweet? You think, really?”
Wright insisted that the fiercely independent fictional characters reflected real life. “This is not an old folks’ village. We run ourselves. The management are wonderful, they’re there to look after the property, to sort things out — but we’re in charge,” she said.
“This is not somewhere where a nice family should be putting granny to be safe. This is where people come for the last quarter of their life because they want to go on enjoying life differently.”
Former BBC executives and ex-members of the House of Lords live at the village, and residents have put on talks on topics ranging from euthanasia to fracking. “If you ask around here you will find an expert on absolutely everything,” Wright said.
The books’ appeal lies partly in Osman’s warm depiction of elderly characters, contrasting with the way they are often patronized by other authors.
As in the novels, village politics are not far beneath the surface. Residents protested when plans to turn the concert hall into flats were mooted — an episode that inspired an Osman storyline — while a row over whether to join a bowls league and invite outsiders to the village caused “enormous bad feeling”, Wright said. Guggenheim asked: “Didn’t someone threaten to sue somebody for libel?”
There is more to come from the characters, with Osman poised to write at least two more novels.
Steven Spielberg’s production company has bought the rights to a film version. Wright said that Celia Imrie and Imelda Staunton would make a good Elizabeth and Joyce. A cameo role for herself would be “absolutely wonderful” but only if the film-makers came to her, as she would find traveling to a set “quite difficult”.
Despite being Osman’s “biggest fan”, Wright said she had found it tricky to get used to his prose. “He says he likes to write in sections every day — he writes a bit that has a beginning and an end,” she said. “I find it quite staccato. But once I get into the rhythm, I’m very comfortable with it.”
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman, is out now
Liam Kelly is an arts-and-entertainment correspondent for The Sunday Times of London