Many novels are fantasies by their very nature — that’s why once they were considered dangerous for women. Although not all, of course; nobody yearns to be Shuggie Bain or Gregor Samsa or Miss Havisham.
But being James Bond or Jack Aubrey or Becky Sharp … well, that’s a different story. The nature of fantasies changes over time — women for many years would report dreams of being in the workplace that wouldn’t even occur to men, which accounts for some of the popularity of Jackie Collins’s novels. Our deepest fantasies do not lie when it comes to the till, as the 150 million readers who liked learning about Anastasia Steele being smacked on the arse surely attest.
Which brings us to Richard Osman, who, in his inordinately successful, multimillion-copy-selling Thursday Murder Club series, has so perfectly put his finger on the deepest yearnings of our contemporary age that it hurts.
The clue here is in a very early line of his latest cozy crime novel, The Last Devil to Die: “If Cooper’s Chase [the ultra-luxurious retirement village where his gang of elderly detectives lives] was about anything, it was about ensuring that no one should feel lonely at Christmas.”
Of course, no matter how lovely or plush the setting or how cheery the staff, all care homes are devastatingly lonely at Christmas. Even prisons are more fun. But not in Osman’s Britain. And of course, when we are old, who doesn’t want to outsmart younger people, be recognized for being brilliant and end up somewhere that feels like the equivalent of a five-star hotel, where staff are chatty and kind, there is wine on the table and there are fun friends to hang out with?
Everyone in this book has their flaws — Elizabeth is stern, Ibrahim is too precise, Ron a left-wing bore — but nobody minds, and everyone accepts and loves everyone else just as they are.
The younger people at the police station take them incredibly seriously, listening to everything they want to say, and everyone drinks all the time and never has a hangover (not something that chimes with my own experience of getting older). Elizabeth’s husband has Alzheimer’s — but it is the quiet, gentle Alzheimer’s that still allows you to be a chess wizard capable of occasional flashes of great wisdom, not the pants-crapping, racist shouting type.
Our deepest fantasies do not lie when it comes to the till.
Storywise in The Last Devil to Die, the Thursday Murder Club is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030 if it can persuade Ibrahim to stop laminating things, Joyce has a contretemps with her daughter about oat milk, the group stops a romance scam and there is a lot of kerfuffle about a missing box of heroin. There is the usual eye-watering amount of murder, which sits slightly incongruously next to a tender, deftly handled subplot. But in general it is business as usual: The Famous Five with older people (the dog’s name is Alan).
Overall, the real strength of these books is that they are genuinely funny. It is a truism that people who aren’t funny think that writing funny books is easy. To wear it as lightly as Osman does is a gift; these books read like champagne — or English sparkling wine, something probably worth getting into rather than heroin, as one character ruefully notes. Making something look effortless is praised in musicians or athletes; rarely in writers.
There is one main joke — vicious murders interspersed with people worrying about forgetting their Spark cards — but it is a good one and delightfully done. My favorite versions of it in The Last Devil to Die include the man who hopes the person who is torturing him will stop by 4am, as his daughter is a talented ice dancer and they need to be at the rink by 7am; and a eulogy by a vicar who never met his subject (“He lived in a bungalow in Ovingdean … he was, clearly, not a man who enjoyed stairs”).
Not all fantasies will or should come true, but Osman’s is so terribly beguiling. It is a tiny bit heartbreaking to see how many people desperately want to end up as Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Joyce and Ron — then to look around at the state of Britain right now and ponder how very few of us will.