Coopers Chase Retirement Village is a lovely place to live: the former convent set on 12 verdant acres in Kent, England, is now home to 300 residents over age 65. There’s a swimming pool, exercise studio and restaurant, as well as roaming sheep and llamas. The Jigsaw Room is a hot spot, but not because of its exciting tabletop puzzles; rather, on Thursday nights, a quartet of clever 70-somethings gathers to engage in amateur detective work. Their mission is to solve cold cases, but the group must change focus when multiple new murders happen right in front of them. Soon, they’re wondering: just how well do they know their neighbors?
Debut author Richard Osman is a celebrity in his native England, where he hosts, produces and directs several highly popular TV shows. We spoke with him about his inspirations for The Thursday Murder Club, and what it’s like to dive into an entirely new medium.
Congratulations on your first book! Was it difficult to go from working on TV shows to crafting a novel? Were you able to smoothly transition to a new form of creative expression, or was there a bit of an adjustment period?
Thank you so much! I loved the new discipline of novel writing. Of sitting by myself, chatting to my characters, and throwing all sorts of awful trouble their way. The main thing I missed about television is that in TV there is always someone who can go and get a coffee for you, whereas when you’re writing you have to get your own. I can’t believe novelists have put up with this for so many years.
The members of the Thursday Murder Club are so smart, witty and resourceful: the charismatic Elizabeth, who hints that she was once a spy of some sort; Joyce, the observant former nurse; Pilates-loving former psychiatrist Ibrahim; and Ron, the famous trade union leader. Do you identify with any of the club members?
I think I am very similar to Joyce, who always gets her own way, but with absolute British kindness and courtesy. I also share Ibrahim’s love of lists and statistics. And also his total fear of spontaneity. I wish I was sometimes a bit more like Elizabeth and Ron, who are both able to steamroll their way through life, leaving chaos in their wake, but always with a pure heart and good intentions. I think somewhere between the four of them might be the perfect human being!
"For large periods of writing I felt I was possessed by the spirit of a 76-year-old woman . . . "
Joyce’s diary entries offer readers a peek at the inner workings of the club—her empathetic nature shines through, as does her delight in documenting the occasions when she follows Elizabeth’s often hilarious lead into extra-legal endeavors. What made you decide to structure the book that way, and to choose Joyce as the diarist?
Joyce is the character who thinks most like me. Her mind constantly wanders off in different directions. She was just a dream to write, talking very earnestly about murder, then veering off into some anecdote about her vacuum cleaner. Her insightful, empathetic nature allows her to spot things the others, particularly Elizabeth, might miss. She likes to sit and think, and work things out. I enjoyed listening to her doing that, and writing it all down for her. For large periods of writing I felt I was possessed by the spirit of a 76-year-old woman, and I have to say I recommend it to anyone.
Have you always wanted to write a mystery? What mystery books or authors are dear to your heart? Your brother Mat also published his first book this year—did you commiserate and read each other’s work? (Does this herald a shiny new era of Osman Brothers Literature?)
I have always been a crime fiction junkie. From Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, through to Harlan Coben, Shari Lapena and Jeff Deaver. Writing a mystery gives you such a perfect excuse to think up the perfect murder, just in case you ever need one.
My brother is so much cooler than me, just effortlessly hip, and his writing is so beautiful and dark and clever. I adored his novel, and I was thrilled he loved mine. It is a rare and happy day when your older brother tells you he’s proud of you.
How do you think your work in television has influenced and informed your work? For example, did your quiz-show experience give you confidence as you crafted characters who piece together clues and evidence? And do you think producing and directing aided you in managing big-picture aspects as well as fine details of your narrative? Were there any aspects of your story or characters or the writing process that you were uncertain about?
In television formats you have to grab people’s attention, and you have to keep it. They could switch over at any second. People will read maybe 30 pages of a new book before making their mind up. They’ll probably watch about 30 seconds of a new TV show, before switching over to “Grey’s Anatomy” reruns.
So in a TV quiz, you grab people quickly, you explain the rules quickly, you give viewers a reason to stay to the end (Who’s going to win??? How much???), and then you give them a host and contestants who they want to spend a bit of time with.
And I suppose that’s naturally how I went about writing. Grab them, and then entertain them, and then give the answer they were looking for. I worried that if I started describing the color of the sky for a page and a half, people would simply put the book down and watch “Judge Judy” instead. And I wouldn’t blame them.
Many of your characters must reckon with the consequences of their past choices, whether through daily efforts to manage emotional pain and regret, or a sudden and dramatic need to avoid getting arrested. The need to take personal responsibility also resounds through your characters’ lives. Is that something that intrigues or is important to you, in terms of themes you explore in your work?
I’m a great believer in eventually taking responsibility for who you are, and for the choices you make. We are not defined by our mistakes and failures, we’re defined by how we respond to our mistakes and failures. Some people respond by becoming better human beings, and some respond with anger and self-pity. We all know examples of this. I’m a believer that the qualities of kindness and hard work should be rewarded. In the real world it’s not always the case, but in books we can create the world we want.
You mentioned in your acknowledgments that a visit to a retirement community sparked the idea for your book. What aspects of that visit especially caught your fancy? Did you also visit police departments or interview detectives as you created the characters of Chris and Donna, the police officers who work in collaboration—and sometimes competition—with the murder club?
I loved the friendships I witnessed, and the mischievous nature of many of the residents. So much laughter, so much wine and so much wisdom. It was a beguiling mix which I wanted to show to the world.
Some of the residents of the real village are worried that the book will be a hit, and they’ll have to deal with coachloads of tourists disturbing all their beautiful peace. So I promised I would never tell anyone where the real village is.
The truth is, they would love it if tourists came to visit. I guarantee it. They’ll be selling t-shirts and refreshments. You wait. If the book takes off, they’ll have a sign put up within a month. “You are now entering Thursday Murder Club Country.” They’ll be charging for entry.
At various points in your book, the characters muse on the seasons of their lives, and often make swift decisions due to a heightened awareness of time passing. What was it like to inhabit characters who are a few decades older than you are now? Did it feel freeing, or daunting, or something else entirely?
I am turning 50 this year, and that seems absurd to me. Basically, in my head I feel like I’ve got about five years left. However, in the next book Ibrahim goes through a statistical analysis of life-expectancy statistics (he is nothing if not cheery) and according to the official numbers I have at least 35 years left, so I think maybe I’m overreacting.
What’s up next for you—and for the members of the Thursday Murder Club?
I am writing the follow-up now, and everyone who survives the first book is back. And rest assured, there is plenty of trouble ahead for them all.
I have had such a lovely reaction to the book in the U.S. I am desperate to come out to visit readers and bookshops and libraries. Hopefully, that will be possible sooner rather than later.