Entertainment

Richard Osman is perfectly at ease pretending to be a 78-year-old woman


Here in England, Richard Osman was best known as a TV personality, the presenter of the British quiz shows “Pointless” and “House of Games.” With the publication of his debut crime novel in 2020, he became an international literary celebrity. “The Thursday Murder Club” and its follow-up, “The Man Who Died Twice,” follow a team of elderly sleuths as they solve cold cases from their comfortable retirement village in the English countryside. The wry, amiable thrillers — “cozy crime,” as they have been categorized — have sold millions of copies, becoming bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Osman and I met for a walk in the park near his home in London to discuss the third novel in the series, “The Bullet That Missed,” who inspires his characters — and the murder story in his own family history.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: This is your third novel after a long career in TV. Do you approach writing differently after the success of “The Thursday Murder Club?”

A: When you write the first novel, unless you’re a maniac, you assume it’s terrible and that you’re not a writer. All the way through you’re like: “Wow! This is what writing a book is like!” And when something needs to happen in the story you go, “Now, what would happen next if this were a novel?” When you come to write the second or third one, it’s just, “What happens next in my story?”

Review: “The Bullet That Missed”

Q: Do you read differently now that you write?

A: Yes, completely. I’m a huge crime-fiction fan, so I would only ever write what I read myself. But I’ve always read for entertainment purely, so I was never asking: “What is the author doing? What tricks are they playing?” Now, the key thing when I’m reading a crime novel is, “Where are you hiding the clues?”

Q: Where do you hide your clues?

A: I love stuff about the world around us, so I can usually hide clues in observations about the local shops, or I can hide them in jokes or comic discussions between people. But I don’t like extraneous information where you think, “That’s nothing to do with the story.”

Q: There’s something very recognizable about your characters. My mum says each one reminds her of a different one of her friends. Are they drawn from people you know?

A: I haven’t really based them on people. They’re really the four corners of my own brain, I think, in that I find each of them very easy to access. I mean, the main narrator, Joyce, is a 78-year-old woman, and I find it worryingly easy to get inside her head! Whenever I’m stuck I’ll write a Joyce chapter.

But I don’t like characters who are purely archetypes. I love it when someone comes in and you think, “Oh, they’re going to be the baddie,” and they might be the baddie, but they’re also something else. I like to think, “If an actor had this minor role would they be happy, even if they’re only in two scenes?”

Richard Osman, inspired by ‘The A-Team,’ has created a delightful band of elderly sleuths

Q: Did I hear that you’re leaving these characters behind and moving on to something else?

A: Oh, God, no! I’m writing the fourth book at the moment, and then I’m going to start a different series. But I’m not killing them off. I’m coming back to them. I have so much fun with them as a gang, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. They seem to spread a lot of joy, and, you know, that’s in fairly short supply. So I’m happy to stick with them.

Q: Tell us about spreading joy.

A: There are writers I love and admire who do a different job and make extraordinary art, who add to the great canon of literature. But hopefully, if I’m anything, I’m an entertainer. I write the books that I would read, and I write them as well as I can, but my main job is to try to entertain people, not to move the history of literature in a particular direction. I’m here to give people a book that they can’t put down, and if they’re on a plane journey then the plane journey goes quicker, and if they’re on holiday they remember the holiday because they read the book. That’s sometimes looked down on a little bit, but it’s really hard to do!

I’d love to be a Cormac McCarthy or an Alice Munro, but I’m not. I do have a place though, and that is: “Would you like to be royally entertained?” Some laughter, some tears, a mystery — I try to do that as well as I possibly can.

Q: Your novels seem to have a very quiet political agenda about bridging divides: friendships that span generations, or class, or political affiliation. Is that deliberate?

A: They definitely have a political agenda, but it’s never worn on its sleeve. It comes from my heart. We’d better find some common ground fairly quickly or we’re in trouble. Also, you know, there is a lot of common ground in the world!

But also I think the novels’ popularity is what’s political about them. The fact that people from everywhere read them, and different generations read them, and people from different political persuasions read them, but the message is one of tolerance and love and understanding, and the empaths winning out over the sociopaths.

Q: Since you write about murder, what’s the story about your ancestors solving a murder in the 19th century?

A: I was on a program called “Who Do You Think You Are?” where you look over your ancestry. They have a whole team of people researching it, and then you turn up and you don’t know what they’ve found until they turn over a piece of paper. I could see that the production team knew they had something. I could tell from their faces: “Oh, we’ve got something good for you today!”

They turned over this story of my five-times-great-grandfather, Gabriel Gilliam, and his wife, Nancy, and his mother, Elizabeth. They lived right by the sea in Brighton in a fishing community with genuinely Dickensian levels of poverty, just at the time these great Regency villas were sprouting up all around them. Anyway, they were notified of some peculiarity — something not quite right — in a barn in Preston Park, two miles from the coast. So the three of them went down there and uncovered a body, which was then the subject of one of the most sensational murder trials of the century.

[Gabriel] was the chief witness in the trial. He even got accused of the murder by the guy who did it: “You found the body because you murdered her!” But of course, thankfully, he hadn’t. There was a huge public inquest, and a few months later the murderer was hanged. So it’s incredible that these three people from a fishing community in Brighton solved this extraordinary crime, and then two centuries later I’m writing a story about amateur detectives in their 70s solving crimes.

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Q: Aren’t you tempted to work it into one of your novels?

A: I am tempted to turn it into a story because it’s fascinating. I like the idea of this town, Brighton, which had suddenly turned very rich, but which still had its poor fishing community, and still had a lot of lawlessness, and where justice was in the hands of the people. And I could name the characters after my ancestors. Because in the sort of family I come from, they all died in poverty, in the workhouse, forgotten by history. It would be lovely to have them not forgotten by history by writing something about them.

Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London and the author of “Index, A History of the.”

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