September 14, 2022

In 1984, Clive James tabled the Barry Manilow Law: no-one you know likes Barry Manilow, while the rest of the world worships the ground on which he walks. This adage can now be updated. Until very recently, I didn’t know anyone who had read Richard Osman’s books; I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who had read them.

But everyone else in Britain must have. He’s now sold five million copies of them, and at moments has enjoyed an almost Beatles-esque literary ubiquity, topping the hardback and paperback bestseller charts simultaneously. And like the early Beatles’ albums, he’s cranked them out at a prolific (and commercially auspicious) rate. The first of The Thursday Murder Club mysteries came out in September 2020, and the second almost a year later to the day. Right on cue, the third, The Bullet that Missed is out this week. And like its predecessors, it is set to be one of the bestselling books in British history.

The famous novelist who is famous for being something else — a newscaster, cook, or dress-designer — is no great novelty. And though he’s clear that he didn’t want to be seen as having “dashed out a celebrity novel”, Osman is clearly not in the writing game for the garret and the overdraft: his first two books went for a seven-figure advance. But while Graham Norton, Jeremy Vine and Richard Coles bashed it out, took the cheque, and returned to the loftier heights of their primary career, Osman has refused to stop writing.

If you’ve been entertained in Britain over the last 25 years, you’ll be familiar with Osman, whether you realise it or not. If, in the Noughties, you saw a deal-broking, sombre-talking Noel Edmonds conjuring numbers out of red boxes — Osman was behind the camera, as a producer. Or, if you only caught the aquatic soft-play of Total Wipeout or the “anarchic” nastiness of 8 Out of 10 Cats, go back and check the credits. Executive producer: Richard Osman.

But this was all mere preludial before Osman’s imperial, front-of-house period. First, still behind a desk if not behind the scenes, as Pointless’s toothy sage of arcane trivia, before spinning off solo with Richard Osman’s House of Games. And in the past few years, the written word has also become an integrated province of Greater Osmania. If you can clamber past the cardboard Osman display set in the Waterstones window, the life-size Osman cut-out in the doorway, you’ll find only pyramids of Osman hardbacks, themselves overshadowed by the broader Teotihuacans of shiny Osman paperbacks.

He was already on television every single day. The face and the name, every night of the week just around teatime — flick on the old crystal bucket and there he is, in the slot of warm, cuddly, wisecracking nerd. Like Stephen Fry, a camera-loving Cantab whose intelligence is attractive rather than intimidating — indeed, Osman is seriously fanciable according to various samples of “which celebrity d’you wanna shag” psephology.

Heat magazine’s weirdest crush (2011) has also been aided by a campaign of epic salesmanship. First the Tube posters, the chat show slots, the free books given away to NHS workers, and the personal “brand manager” appointed to Osman by his publisher. And then the blurbing splurge and the endorsements from Britain’s popular intelligentsia which gush across the covers of Osman’s books. Adam Kay (“achingly British”), Marian Keyes (“VERY funny”) and this slightly scary recommendation from Philippa Perry: “I didn’t ever want to finish this book!” It would be too easy to envy such a spectacle, and several reviewers have given into the temptation. But Osman’s success has rippled overseas (number two in Japan). He can’t be written off as some self-inflating industry balloon.

So what of the books? Like the rest of Osman’s oeuvre, they’re very entertaining, and make smart use of the winning ingredients of British popular fiction. The setting, Osman’s Hogwarts or Malory Towers, is one of Britain’s few remaining growth industries: an old-age home in Kent called Coopers Chase. Living there are Osman’s Famous Five — Ron, Joyce, Elizabeth and Ibrahim — who set up the Thursday Murder Club, an extra-curricular group dedicated to solving cold murder cases. They have help from local bobbies Chris and Donna, and shadowy figures from their own pasts. The result is something like a cross between The Archers and Spooks, with Elizabeth, a kind of female James Bond in retirement, lending proceedings a touch of Cold War, gun-in-the-handbag glamour.

Osman isn’t a multifaceted or complex writer. His villains stalk the night-terrors of the middle-class imagination: a drug baroness, teenage hoodlums, tax-avoiders and, most horrifying of all, a gauche property developer. And in the background lurk the clichés of broader thrillerdom: Colombian drug smugglers, the New York mafia, dodgy Albanians. This is all smoothed under a tone of relentless comic bathos, raising the stakes of a murder before dropping you back down to quaint, twee, pensioner earth. So, meet this fearsome former Russian spy, sometime head of the Leningrad KGB, who is on the phone to a call centre trying to get Virgin Media to show this week’s Bake Off. Or: on the road, racing after our perp — but can’t we please stop for the loo, my bladder’s really not what it used to be.

These deflationary gags, honed on the panel show, are good for a half-hour, not for 400 pages. It has been labelled “cosy crime”, godless and largely un-romantic. When sex rears its head, it keeps its hat on (all of Osman’s oldsters are rather horny, but only in the manner of a wistful dotage). Even his criminals hardly swear. In place of such grandiosity or indelicacy are jokes, daytime telly references, warmth, and a steady, mellow banality.

You can’t attain such heights of popularity without trouble. And while Osman would always face aesthetic attack (most crime novelists do), some suppose his popularity comes with political responsibilities. One notable attack from the Left accused him of a kind of bourgeois sentimentality, projecting a too-tranquil provincial England where the police aren’t corrupt or violent enough and which neglects the “cruel and authoritarian” truth of Conservative rule.

Whether or not the Kent police really need defunding, the Thursday Murder Club series is certainly not politically radical. From Agatha Christie onwards, as the historian Alison Light has argued, English crime has always contained a strand of deep conservatism, suspending a cyclical, domestic space of puzzles and resolutions at a safe remove from the anxieties of modernity. With Osman, this can be even more robustly applied. His pensioner-vigilantes are literally bubbled away from the threats of the contemporary world, even more so than Christie’s middle-class assassins. His goal is entertainment, not critique or attack. The “whip-smart” millennial novelist can angrily deconstruct online sexual politics as much as they like; in Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice, one of the inconsequential running gags is Joyce’s new Instagram account, @GreatJoy69, and the slew of unsolicited messages and pictures it attracts.

The truth is that Osman’s characters, readers and viewers are the same constituency: Britain’s comfortable gerontocrats. Everything that I associate with being and feeling modern — atomisation, digital culture, urban space, irony — is absent from these books. They’re not for me; they’re for the shrinking number of people who still reliably get their laughs and news from television. And Osman knows this is his gift. “My whole career is formats, really,” he told the Guardian, from Deal or No Deal to The Bullet that Missed.

The scale of his success tells us some things we know already: we’re getting older, we’re retelling the same stories, rehashing the same jokes. But it’s also a reminder that for the vast swell of people, a good time looks a bit like an endless panel show: inconsequential, cringey and hopelessly trite; but good-natured, and conscious of a collective national mesh of humour and sympathies which we are sometimes of in danger of forgetting.

That’s no reason to head out to mourn Western civilisation. The great hope for Osman’s books may be the news that broke soon after his first started breaking records: Steven Spielberg is to adapt it for the screen (producer: Richard Osman). In the hands of Spielberg — a technical master of his medium in a way that Osman will unfortunately never be — the true role of stories like this will become plain. Not to sermonise or uncover the economic basis of society, but to move and thrill the common heart.

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