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Book reviews: The Thursday Murder Club and A Strange & Wicked Magic

Anandhi Gopinath & Miriam Chew
Anandhi Gopinath & Miriam Chew • 7 min read
Book reviews: The Thursday Murder Club and A Strange & Wicked Magic
The English crime novel genre takes a bit of a detour owing to the unexpected setting of Richard Osman’s latest crime series, The Thursday Murder Club
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Best known as the creator and co-presenter of the beloved BBC quiz show Pointless, Richard Osman’s career in television and comedy spans more than two decades. He studied politics and sociology at Trinity College, Cambridge, and began his career in television by producing numerous shows, including Deal or No Deal.

Since 2009, he has co-presented Pointless with Alexander Armstrong and made various appearances in programmes such as Have I Got News for You and QI. Osman has also written several quiz and trivia books, including A Pointless History of the World.

He broke records with his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club — a deliciously humorous detective romp featuring a group of pensioners sleuthing in a sleepy retirement village in Kent. It became the fastest-selling adult crime debut in recorded history, and it’s easy to see why: the book is utterly hilarious and profiles a community many of us would have never even considered. Perhaps in Malaysia, where the older generation still live with their children at home, such a scenario seems improbable. But in the UK where retirement homes are multi-billion-dollar businesses that form entire communities, it’s hard to imagine how such a setting for a crime novel had never been explored earlier.

The way Osman writes The Thursday Murder Club, it seems like a perfect set- ting, too — after all, what else can a group of smart, not-yet-senile septuagenarians do with their time if not fight crime and solve mysteries? Not since Enid Blyton got kids to do just that has the genre been quite this exciting, and for the same reason — it’s so unexpected, but at the same time, makes perfect sense.

Osman’s prose is faultless, language-wise: he employs a simple and elegant turn of phrase that is satisfyingly cerebral without seeming intimidating, and this is critical because it doesn’t take any attention away from the most important part of the book: its plot. At the upscale retirement village of Cooper Chase, four friends get together in the Jigsaw Room to crack cold cases and solve them. This little amateur sleuthing club kicks into high gear when a murder takes place involving the community — and soon, another body is found as well. What is going on, who did it, and why?

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Told in the voice of two women of the four friends — quiet-but-notices-everything Joyce, smart as a whip Elizabeth, Rowdy Ron and quiet but articulate Ibrahim — The Thursday Murder Club slowly disentangles this admittedly complicated whodunnit with a raft of supporting characters, including two policemen who simply don’t get ahead of the facts as fast as Elizabeth does (a plot- line redolent of Enid Blyton, is it not?) and other residents of the home, who deal with various issues only the elderly would be familiar with.

While the actual crime-solving part is good fun — and the raison d’etre of the book — it’s the characterisation that is most endearing about The Thursday Murder Club. Senior citizens lead lives we know so little about, and Osman humorously and tactfully handles topics like ageing, loss, disease and dementia — stuff that almost never makes it into contemporary reading material. Putting them in the context of a murder mystery softens these issues, somewhat, and introduces the concept of ageing to younger readers in a gentle way.

But let’s judge The Thursday Murder Club for what it is — a juicy crime novel. Frankly, there were too many convenient coincidences that led to Elizabeth and Joyce’s discoveries and connections that simply couldn’t have been possible in real life, but reality is not why one picks up a murder mystery paperback — it is for an escape to a world where there are answers and someone does find the bad guy in the end.

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And while the killers — there are two — are finally revealed, the reader is still left hanging with regards to the characters, whose lives it is im- possible to stay unaffected by. As such — in the case of Joyce and Ron and their children, Ibrahim and his affectations, Elizabeth’s husband — Osman ends the book with many unanswered questions. If you can cope with cliffhangers, all well and good, but if you cannot and find these sorts of endings unbearable, fret not — his second book, The Man Who Died Twice, is already out and proves just as exciting.

In this sequel to The Thursday Murder Club, Elizabeth receives a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster and a very real threat to his life. As the bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians.

The literary world hasn’t seen the last of this posse of pension-drawing Poirots, as Osman’s third book, The Bullet That Missed, will be out this September. We can hardly wait. E

Enchanted words

After his first book that reads like a diary and a love letter, Zack Shah returns with A Strange & Wicked Magic, a second volume of bittersweet poetry and prose for the lovelorn, the lonely and the lost. Written in four parts — Lost Souls, Déjà Vu, Incantations and Twisted Tales — the book encapsulates themes such as the contradictory nature of love, the habit of choosing fantasy over reality and experiences that mark life’s highs and lows.

Incantations is a particular chapter bearing a concept rarely, if not never, used at all. It features 10 spells for different situations and desires. The author thought it would be a great idea to add this section as a way of depicting his interest in the fantasy realm of witchcraft and magic.

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“These poems are inspired by classic witchery and magic TV shows like Charmed and Sabrina [The Teenage Witch] — my childhood TV shows. I love spells and incantations, magic and witchcraft and all these ‘occult’ like themes. And knowing that my book has some magical themes, I thought to myself, why not make an entire chapter dedicated to incantations,” he tells Penwings Publishing.

Zack has been an avid reader since childhood, which was when he first fell head over heels for fantasy fiction. The Johor Bahru-born writer dedicates a section of A Strange & Wicked Magic to this imagination-influencing genre, with retellings of The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. He pays special attention to the stories behind how these villains came to be in these beloved narratives, adding elements that are haunting yet compelling.

Poetry is a form of literature that can be ambivalent — it resonates easily with some readers while others may find it uninteresting or too complicated. A Strange & Wicked Magic may just change the minds of the latter class of readers. With its rhyming verses and heart- wrenching as well as defencelessly vulnerable themes, Zack successfully captures the technique of portraying feelings, mainly about love and loss.

Readers can easily relate to the writer’s conflicted perceptions of romantic love — they carry the potential to mend as much as the capability to break. His choice of words communicates emotions very clearly, but he paints the situations in a vague manner so that many can relate to them.

Zack’s first poetry collection, More Than Words, released in 2019, made the best-sellers list in the fiction category at Borders and MPH for months, surpassing some international titles. — By Miriam Chew

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