Before starting on what is likely to be Richard Osman’s second international bestseller, “The Man Who Died Twice,” I would normally have read his first, “The Thursday Murder Club,” but I couldn’t pry it from the hands of my wife. “Adorable,” she said, adding, “Now go away.” I did warn her that on the evidence of the new book, which is funny, moving and suspenseful, that she should be prepared for a certain amount of blood and violence. “The Man Who Died Twice” isn’t exactly a cozy mystery, even though its heroes are a quartet of septuagenarians living in the Cooper Close retirement complex.
Think of the Thursday Murder Club itself as a senior version of “The A-Team” — Osman, a well-known British comedian and television personality, has admitted to being influenced by that old TV series. Elizabeth is the leader, a steely former spy with MI5, who has survived many missions, enjoyed many love affairs, and is almost impossible to fool. Her kindhearted, ever-optimistic friend Joyce spent 40 years as a nurse, knits friendship bracelets and is still on the lookout for love. Yet as Joyce notes in her diary, “People really don’t buy that Elizabeth is a harmless old woman for very long. With me it lasts much longer, but Elizabeth doesn’t have that gift.” After spending a little time with ditzy-seeming Joyce, a high-ranking intelligence officer thinks: “What a tiny, formidable woman. Exactly the sort of woman you’d want parachuted behind enemy lines with a gun and a cipher machine.”
Next there’s working-class Ron, a former union organizer and ardent soccer fan, at once romantic, chaotic and deeply loyal, who becomes the close friend of Ibrahim, a retired psychiatrist originally from Cairo, blessed with a nearly eidetic memory and fearful of the modern world’s threatening disorder. These are the official members of the Club. Elizabeth, though, lives with her sweet-tempered husband Stephen, who suffers from mild but increasing dementia. He spends his evenings playing chess with Bogdan, a young, blue-eyed Polish builder with a shaved head and tattooed arms — utterly fearless, ultracompetent and indifferent to his immense sexual charisma.
“I love it when a plan comes together.” This celebrated catchphrase from “The A-Team” hints at Osman’s intricate narrative design, one that gradually twines together several seemingly incongruous plot strands. To avoid spoilers, I’ll only outline the initial setup for each, revealing nothing but what you’ll learn in the first 54 pages of this novel.
At the start, Elizabeth discovers that her younger former husband, charming as ever and still active in the secret service, is hiding in a safe house because of a covert operation gone slightly wrong. Douglas and his team broke into the elegant country home of Martin Lomax, a known banker for international criminals, just for a quick look-see. The next day, however, a stash of diamonds, worth 20 million pounds, has disappeared from the house. Who took them? And where are they now?
Lomax believes that MI5 is behind the theft, but his real problem lies with the New York mafia. They want their diamonds back pronto, otherwise he will soon be dead. What to do? Matters are further complicated because Lomax is about to open his famous gardens — perhaps the most beautiful in England — for a special fete and a feature in the Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile, the Thursday Murder Club must deal with a crisis much closer to home: On a rare trip into the seaside town of Fairhaven, Ibrahim is mugged and nearly killed. There’s no evidence against the perpetrator, a nasty piece of work named Ryan, but Elizabeth, Ron and Joyce don’t need to operate within the law like their police officer friends, the middle-aged Chris and the 20-something Donna. In a final thread, these last two have been trying, without the least success, to bring down the local drug queenpin, Connie Johnson, not so long ago a teaching assistant at a primary school. That detail sounds to me like a bit of transatlantic one-upmanship: You will recall that Walter White, the meth dealer of “Breaking Bad,” was once a high school chemistry teacher.
What makes “The Man Who Died Twice” so delicious, even adorable, derives from its lighthearted tone and a witty style based on antithesis. To build tension, short chapters shift rapidly from one viewpoint and scene to another. More crucially, though, Osman’s heroes, while trying to solve brutal murders and decipher cryptic messages, never stop being concerned with their health, grandchildren and the pleasure of just sipping wine and bantering with one another. They are ordinary old people yet, like all old people, much deeper and complicated than they appear: “There are lifts in all the buildings, but Elizabeth will use the stairs while she still can. Stairs are good for hip and knee flexibility. Also, it is very easy to kill someone in a lift when the doors open. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and a ping to announce you’re about to appear.”
Sentences like that abound in Osman’s novel. As the prissy fussbudget Martin Lomax prepares his beloved gardens for public gaze, he realizes that he needs to keep people away from the cesspit, now the final resting place of more than a few bodies. And, of course, there must be “no digging. There are grenades somewhere. For the life of him he can’t remember where they are buried, but he knows they are in a safe location, and he has written it down somewhere. Under the Venetian gazebo? On reflection, he can’t even remember whose grenades they were, or why he had agreed to bury them, but that comes with age.”
Veteran mystery readers will doubtless recognize one or two red herrings, but other clues will only be remembered in retrospect. Osman keeps you guessing, which is just as it should be. This is, in short, a wildly entertaining book — even for people a long way from their 70s.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE
By Richard Osman
Pamela Dorman Books. 366 pp. $26
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