An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Originally published in 2020 as Äldre dam med mörka hemligheter.
English translation first published in 2021.
An Elderly Lady #2
Preceded by An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good

Just when things have finally cooled down for 88-year-old Maud after the disturbing discovery of a dead body in her apartment in Gothenburg, a couple of detectives return to her doorstep. Though Maud dodges their questions with the skill of an Olympic gymnast a fifth of her age, she wonders if suspicion has fallen on her, little old lady that she is. The truth is, ever since Maud was a girl, death has seemed to follow her.

In these six interlocking stories, memories of unfortunate incidents from Maud’s past keep bubbling to the surface. Meanwhile, certain Problems in the present require immediate attention. Luckily, Maud is no stranger to taking matters into her own hands . . . even if it means she has to get a little blood on them in the process.

When I read An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good a few years ago I rather assumed that it would be a one off. Its concept of an octogenarian serial killer is a fascinating one but the danger with any unorthodox concept like that the material risks seeming rather ridiculous when repeated too often. After all, how many inventive methods could a woman in her late eighties employ without getting caught?

Tursten’s second volume of stories is not without problems but repetition is thankfully not one of them. The author smartly structures the collection in such a way that we are looking back to murders committed earlier in her life. This not only helps to keep the material fresh, it also enables us to explore some of the events responsible for shaping Maud and turning her into a killer. I would note that in my review of the first volume I complained that the lack of an explanation of that development was the biggest issue with that collection, so it’s lovely to see that addressed so directly here.

This collection presents us with Maud at different stages of her life from childhood to the present day. While she is clearly experiencing some quite distinct challenges at each age, the core nature of the character is evident throughout and we see the seeds of some behaviors that would develop later.

One of the most interesting aspects of Maud’s character is that she is never presented as a simple villain or sick individual, particularly in this set of stories. While Maud does kill, she never does so for pleasure but it is often because she is either trying to help someone, fix a problem or remove a threat. The stories in this collection present examples of each of those circumstances.

Usually when I write about short story collections I tend to break my review into sections discussing each of the short stories. In this case however that approach doesn’t really feel appropriate as Tursten integrates each of the stories into that bigger narrative of Maud reflecting on things that have happened in her life during a plane flight to South Africa. As such it feels more appropriate to discuss them as chapters in a somewhat episodic story rather than as individual tales.

Maud’s experiences on the plane appear in the background of each of the early stories as she is sometimes jolted awake or addressed by airline staff or fellow passengers, pulling her back into the present. Those memories are not presented as pleasurable – one of them certainly seems to upset her – but rather the drifting thoughts of an elderly lady who has been under a considerable amount of stress.

The cause of that stress is the aftermath of the police investigation into the events at the end of the previous collection. It’s quite credible and explained pretty well but I would suggest that readers would be advised to make sure they have read The Antique Dealer’s Death before starting this to enable them to clearly follow the action and understand the exact nature of the pressures she has been under.

The first five stories in the collection therefore deal with Maud’s experiences during the flight and her memories of those earlier crimes. Each of these maintains the high standards set by the stories in the previous collection and I appreciate that the author is clearly wanting to explore different sides to Maud as a character.

The Truth About Charlotte, the fourth story in the collection, struck me as one of the most fascinating on a character level in either collection. While the revelations about what happened to her will likely not surprise many, they are executed very well and I did enjoy that hint of ambiguity in the final pages.

The other story that really stood out to me was Little Maud Sets a Trap. This is the story set earliest in Maud’s life to date and it sees her responding to the actions of a couple of brutish boys who are making life miserable in her home. This was a story that I felt did a particularly fine job of exploring Maud’s emotions and helping us understand why she does not view herself as monstrous.

The other three stories are all good and each does a fine job of explaining the characters’ growths. Unfortunately I was a little less enamored of the book’s final, and longest, chapter to fully appreciate them.

The only chapter that didn’t really work for me, at least as a piece of crime fiction, was the book’s final and longest story: “An Elderly Lady Takes a Trip to Africa”. This was not because it was uninteresting as a character study but rather because so much of the story is given over to exploring Maud’s feelings about her tour and the people she is traveling with. It doesn’t help that the pacing feels very slow and deliberate, often seeming to stretch things out.

That approach is understandable, particularly given the contemplative tone of the collection’s framing structure, but it does present a rather significant stylistic shift. I am unconvinced whether it is wholly successful though I appreciate that this story does show some other aspects of her character such as her compassion and her ability to present an image of herself that will be palatable for others.

Still, while the story may be a little less criminous or morally complex than some of the other stories in this collection, the book did strike me as on the whole Maud remains a charming and entertaining creation. I would not object if a third volume were to appear but, if not, this is a satisfying way to fill out and explore that character.

The Verdict: A fine continuation of Maud’s story. The historical crimes were considerably more interesting to me though than her experiences on vacation.

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