The Man Who Died Twice is Richard Osman’s 2021 novel about a group of Kent retirement home residents who enjoy solving murders. The book sold over 144,000 copies in its first three days.
It has often struck me how popular murder is, with readers in general, but with older readers in particular. My daughter often looks after the secondhand book stall at a local market. Many of her customers are retired, and their preference for crime and murder easily outstrips their interest in anything else. And yet, this age group also tend to vote for the ‘law-and-order’ candidates in elections.
This is the kind of context of The Man Who Died Twice. People living in quiet circumstances look to shake things up with cosy crime. The atmosphere of a light-hearted murder mystery, however, combines with something much darker. The same people enjoying murder mystery fun, have to deal with the very real difficulties of their own situation; illness, physical vulnerability, and the sadness of their world passing away. Death hangs over the book, simply in the sense that its main characters are elderly and frail. That has an odd effect on the idea of jeopardy. Somehow the nearness of death in these people’s lives takes the sting out of it. The threat posed by gangsters becomes something of a joke. ‘Death be not proud,’ the poet John Donne wrote in one of his sonnets, and I thought of those lines reading The Man Who Died Twice.
This isn’t a John Le Carré novel. Richard Osman is a television presenter not a former member of the secret services. The plot, despite murders with some gruesome details, and a mugging with very real and unpleasant consequences, is hard to take seriously. At one point, elderly sleuth Joyce Meadowcroft, has to remind herself that she is involved with real criminals and not pretend ones. The criminals she deals with can never quite stop being characters in a farce, which is really the point. There is a pervasive sense that, in the end, no danger is as substantial as it might seem, with, as I suggested, the proximity of death ironically providing this feeling. At one point, Joyce uses a green felt bag that usually contains Scrabble chips to hide millions of pounds worth of diamonds. Criminals will do anything, shoot anyone, to get hold of a handful of sparkly rocks. But how valuable are diamonds to someone nearing the end of their life? Scrabble chips will probably be more precious, because they make possible a fun game to play with friends. And with mortality looming, fun, friends and Scrabble are better things to live for, than diamonds someone might want to kill for.
This is a warm, funny, moving and complex book. I’m not talking about complex in the plot sense – which has the requisite twists and turns – but complex in the way it deals with issues of ageing, danger and security. I think the sensitive treatment of these things lies behind the book’s success; or at least lay behind my enjoyment and admiration of it.