'The Last Devil to Die' book review: It is a relentlessly smart and funny whodunit

'The Last Devil to Die' book review: It is a relentlessly smart and funny whodunit

Sep 30, 2023 - 19:30
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'The Last Devil to Die' book review: It is a relentlessly smart and funny whodunit

Richard Osman has been a household name for British TV viewers for well over a decade now, thanks to the many trivia-based quiz shows he has created, presented and/or wrote for — Pointless, QI, Richard Osman’s House of Games and so on. His breadth of knowledge, droll delivery style and gentle humour have won him a legion of fans in the UK and elsewhere. And it is much the same qualities that have marked his literary career. In 2020, Osman published The Thursday Murder Club, his first murder mystery. The book sold millions of copies and introduced us to the four main characters in the series — ex-spy Elizabeth Best, psychiatrist Ibrahim Arif, former nurse Joyce Meadowcraft, and union organizer Ron Ritchie. This senior citizen quartet live in the Coopers Chase retirement community and gather on Thursdays to solve cold cases—hence the name of the series.

Earlier this month, Osman released the fourth and latest book in the series, The Last Devil to Die. And while this book doesn’t really see Osman operating at the height of his powers, there’s enough ‘cosy crime’ goodness here to keep both returning fans and newbies happy. The novel begins with antiques dealer Kuldesh Sharma (if you’re an Osman fan, you’ll remember he had a small but important role in the last book, The Bullet That Missed) being shot to death over a box that he was supposed to carry in his shop for a day. Obviously, drug traffickers are in play—as Kuldesh thinks to himself a few days before the murder, the antiques business is notorious for “trinkets and trouble”.

As Elizabeth (whose husband Stephen was friends with Kuldesh) and co. investigate, they realize that for the first time ever, the Murder Club is dealing with active and ruthless, organized crime. Because the quarter typically tackles cold cases, the perpetrators aren’t currently menacing in the way Mitch Maxwell (one of the novel’s purported villains) and his heroin dealers are. This makes our intrepid investigators more cautious than ever, but it doesn’t stop The Last Devil to Die from becoming the most blood-soaked book of the series yet. The body count is high and in a bit of a departure from Osman’s usual ‘cosy crime’ style, the deaths are treated with the sombreness you’d associate with noir books.

Each of Osman’s books have a strong comic subplot, and in this book it’s Joyce’s continuing search for a classically handsome man who’s also brainy. Osman has a lot of fun with this character, it’s quite apparent. And there’s genuine affection in the way Joyce’s strengths and weaknesses as a person are in play during this romantic quest. Here, for example, is Joyce reacting to the impending arrival of a new neighbour with a colourful name.

“Anyway, there is a man moving in next week called Edwin Mayhem. Edwin Mayhem! It must be a stage name, mustn’t it? Perhaps he was a magician or a stuntman? Or a sixties popstar? Either way he would be a good subject for my ‘Joyce’s Choices’ column. This month I interviewed a woman who swam the Channel, but they forgot to time her so she had to do it again a month later. She still swims now, in the pool.”

Osman is equally adroit with more serious matters, however. Elizabeth’s husband Stephen is clearly affected by the murder—the victim Kuldesh was an old friend of his—and it accelerates what we have seen coming for a bit. Stephen’s absent-mindedness has now become full-blown dementia and Elizabeth and her friends must figure out how best to support him through this ordeal.

Some of the best examples of the ‘cosy crime’ genre across literature and films/TV happen to be British — I’m thinking of British TV shows like Father Brown and Grantchester in particular. There are solid reasons behind this, of course. Socio-economically, it is an appropriate home for the cosy crime story. The UK’s troubled relationship with multiculturalism and the dwindling returns of the economy give writers ready-made ‘flash points’ that lead to murders. Plus, the fabled British dry humour style lends itself very well to crimes of passion set in small communities like Coopers Chase.

Richard Osman maximizes these inherent strengths in the Thursday Murder Club books. For me, the second book in the series, The Man Who Died Twice, remains the best one. But The Last Devil to Die isn’t too far behind, to be honest. It is a relentlessly smart and funny whodunit that colours within the lines, for the most part. An ideal bedtime read for fans of the genre.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.)

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