The Thursday Murder Club – Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim – is back. This time round, Richard Osman’s “four harmless pensioners” are investigating the case of Bethany Waites, a television reporter who was looking into a huge VAT fraud when her car was driven off a cliff in the middle of the night and whose body was never found.
Joyce lures Bethany’s former colleague, South East Tonight presenter Mike Waghorn (“I play squash, I moisturise and nature takes care of the rest”) to a meeting with the club. They want to pick his brains about Bethany’s last few days. Before he knows it, Mike and his makeup artist, Pauline, are drawn into a mystery that will range from the wilds of Staffordshire to the Sussex coast, taking in money launderers, bitcoin (Joyce is particularly fascinated by this one) and a former KGB hitman (a very pleasant chap and a former lover of Elizabeth’s, it turns out).
Elizabeth, Osman’s retired spy, has other problems to deal with. Not only is her beloved Stephen slipping deeper into the clutches of dementia, but she’s kidnapped and charged with carrying out a hit herself. As ever, she takes it in her stride. “Things have been too quiet recently. A retired optometrist crashed his moped into a tree, and there has been a row about milk bottles, but that was about it for excitement. The simple life is all well and good, but, in this moment, with a murder to investigate, and threatening texts arriving daily, Elizabeth realises she has missed trouble.”
The Bullet That Missed is the third outing for Osman’s retirees. Its predecessors, The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice, sold millions of copies around the world. Any publisher would be keen for Osman to press on with the series after such record-breaking success – The Man Who Died Twice sold an astonishing 114,202 hardbacks in the UK in its first three days last year. And it is easy to be cynical about Osman’s success as an author – he was, after all, the well-known co-host of the hugely popular Pointless TV quiz when his debut came out and his publisher will have thrown enough money behind the novel to guarantee it a place in the book charts.
But that cynicism can only go so far, because once you read Osman’s funny, warm-hearted novels, it is hard not to be charmed by the eccentricities and the resourcefulness of his creations. Whether it’s the careful set-up of a lengthy joke about Joyce and the police training college in Hendon (doesn’t sound promising, I know, but it works) or the deadpan way in which Osman has his TV presenter Mike boast of how “they made me go on an impartiality class in Thanet”, or Joyce’s secret knock, which “sort of matches the rhythm of the moonpig.com advert”, humour is gently threaded through every element of The Bullet That Missed. Writing genuinely funny prose is not at all easy; it is rare that I find a book that has me actually laughing out loud, but I snickered so much reading this one that it was remarked upon by my family. And we haven’t even got to Joyce’s description of Stop the Clock, a joyfully mad gameshow that she and Elizabeth go to watch being filmed. “And they put this on television?” writes the former Pointless presenter with, one can only assume, a certain glee.
It is not all laughs – Osman doesn’t milk it for pathos, but Elizabeth’s battle with Stephen’s developing dementia is heart-wrenching. “Can I ask you something, as a pal… Am I alright, do you suppose?… Something is muddled somewhere. Something isn’t straight,” Stephen says to his friend and chess buddy Bogdan.
So if you pick up The Bullet That Missed expecting a dark crime novel, gruesome deaths and buckets of jeopardy, you will be disappointed. But you would also be a bit silly, because that’s not what these books set out to be. Their impetus doesn’t come from solving the crime or escaping from danger – it comes from enjoying the Thursday Murder Club (and especially Joyce, who is obviously the best of them) deal with everything that’s thrown in their path with panache and aplomb, be it cryptocurrencies or hitmen. “Age,” as Mike Waghorn says, “is nothing but a number.”
• The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman is published by Viking (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply