In a recent YouGov survey concerning British TV celebrities, Richard Osman emerged as the ninth most popular telly personality – the words most often used to describe him were “likable, clever, quick-witted and charming”. Fans of Osman were, the survey suggested, most likely also to admire Dawn French, Judi Dench and appliances made by Russell Hobbs. All of which data no doubt helps to make Viking Penguin, the publisher of Osman’s first novel, comfortable with its decision to invest a “seven-figure advance” in a two-book deal, safe in the knowledge that the Pointless co-presenter is well on the way to national treasure status.
The Thursday Murder Club might double as a final application for that accolade. The club of the book’s title meets every week in the jigsaw room at Coopers Chase, a superior gated retirement village in rural Kent; the puzzle the members attempt to solve, however, is not the “two thousand piecer of Whitstable harbour” left unfinished on the coffee table, but rather one of several cold murder cases brought to their attention by Penny, a resident in the village and a former police inspector. What follows threatens to become the Famous Five in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or a Midsomer murder for a whole gang of Miss Marples. Could there be a more seductive pitch to the readers of middle England (or to the producers of Sunday evening drama)?
Not content with just those reference points, Osman essays an authorial voice that captures a bit of the cadence of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, or at least the odd hot flush of Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies. Joyce, a retired nurse, who has taken on note-taking duties – the Thursday club also includes an ex-psychiatrist, a one-time trade union leader and a former secret agent – tells some of the story with a gossipy mix of irony and bathos: “the parking committee is the single most powerful cabal within Coopers Chase”, she will write; or “Ibrahim [the psychiatrist] introduced himself, shook my hand and told me there were biscuits. He explained that there were two layers, but they tried to finish the top layer before they started the bottom layer. I told him he was preaching to the converted there…”
There is a breathless quality to Vine’s writing that might in a normal summer have made this a popular beach read
Of course, it doesn’t take long for the cold cases to become much warmer, and for the retirement village, with its bowling green and sauna and regular Waitrose deliveries, to become the site of all kinds of murderous intrigue. Osman handles his cast of eccentrics with the aplomb of a gameshow host, and a few too many authorial winks to camera, sensing, you imagine, with every barely credible plot twist, a franchise in the making.
YouGov’s 145th most popular TV personality also has a first novel out. Some of the words most closely associated with Jeremy Vine in the public mind are, apparently, “articulate, annoying, likable and intellectual”. They also go some way to describing his book, which is a heavily researched, somewhat contrived imagining of the events that led to the creation of Salvador Dali’s controversial masterpiece Christ of Saint John of the Cross.
The painting is held at the Kelvingrove gallery in Glasgow and Vine has, by his own account, been a somewhat obsessive pilgrim to it. His story is set in Catalonia during Franco’s rule of the 1950s and features a pair of estranged English sisters who are escaping a damaging past, a cliff-diving waiter, the Hollywood stuntman Russell Saunders, who posed for Dali’s vertiginous crucifixion, and the artist himself.
The cast and the dramatic backdrop of the clifftop coastal town of Cadaqués sets the stage for operatic melodrama, and Vine plunges in headfirst. At the heart of his story is the passion between the younger sister, Ginny, and the cliff-diving Adam, a relationship that takes on a tragic aspect after the pair become involved in the making of Dali’s painting. There is a breathless quality to Vine’s writing – not least in his enthusiastic erotic description (Eggheads look away now) – and a feverishness to the plotting that might in a normal summer have made this a popular beach read. With the nights drawing in, it feels like one of Vine’s election night swingometer performances – a little overheated.
• The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• The Diver and the Lover by Jeremy Vine is published by Coronet (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15