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

The Verdict

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

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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.

Maud had automatically reverted to her best defense: the confused old lady.

My Thoughts

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 Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson

The Mind’s Eye
Håkan Nesser
Originally Published as Det grovmaskiga nätet in 1993
English translation published in 2008
Inspector Van Veeteren #1
Followed by Borkmann’s Point

While I have previously written about several crime novels by Scandinavian authors most have fallen outside the publishing powerhouse that is Scandi Noir (perhaps the exception would be The Murder of Harriet Krohn though even that is a little different as it was structured as an inverted crime story). Today’s book, Håkan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye is clearly an example of that type of fiction so I was curious to see whether I would take to it.

The novel begins with Janek Mitter, a schoolteacher, waking up from a night of heavy drinking to find his bathroom door locked. After knocking and yelling for his wife to open the door, he decides to take the door off its hinges and, when he does, he discovers his wife drowned in the bathtub.

Inevitably he comes under suspicion and the first third of the novel details his response to the investigation and eventual trial. Of course the actual solution could not be quite so simple and a second murder at the end of that first section sets the investigation on a different track, exploring the life and history of the victim.

Perhaps the first thing to question is whether, with the crime taking place in a locked bathroom, we ought to consider this a locked room mystery. I feel the locked room is a plot device rather than the point of the mystery. It helps point the police even more strongly toward the idea that Janek, as the one who found the body, is guilty but a mechanical explanation for how it might be achieved is presented fairly early in case anyway. Once the second murder takes place that question is basically forgotten.

This is frustrating for several reasons, not least because the reason for creating the locked room is never really explained, making it an apparently unnecessary step that raises the chances of detection with no apparent benefit to the criminal. In short, locked room connoisseurs will likely feel unimpressed with this element of the story.

Instead this first third of the novel is far more interested in exploring the preparations for the trial both from the perspective of the police and Mitter’s lawyer. This was my favorite phase of the investigation, in part because I found Mitter to be an engaging, if not particularly likeable, character but also because these chapters do a good job of building the reader’s unease with the case being built against him.

As I alluded to earlier there is a second murder and that marks a shift in the story, both in terms of the type of investigation being done and our focus. From this point onward it is Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren’s story as he probes into the pasts of the two victims and tries to understand exactly why they were targeted.

While the investigation of the first murder focuses on some of the more physical aspects of the crime scene, the investigation of the second murder seems to occur in the abstract. The details of the second murder are not really the focus of the investigation, though the location where it takes place is quite interesting, but rather Van Veeteren is focused on exploring the motives and the possible links between the two murders.

I did not particularly warm to Van Veeteren who is presented as a brilliant but unassuming mind wrapped up in a rather dour and caustic shell. He is led by his instincts and intuitions and crucially he has the ability to conceive of ideas that might not occur to most of us because they seem too outrageous or outlandish using only small pieces of evidence.

My problems lie in the way the narrative seems to keep us at an arm’s distance from Van Veeteren, allowing us to observe what he does but not to see everything he sees. This allows Nesser to pull off a moment that feels quite shocking and yet this is only achieved by withholding some information from the reader. I am pretty confident that I was not given everything I needed to solve the mystery myself and so I felt a little cheated by that conclusion.

What makes that all the more frustrating for me is that the ending is in many ways quite memorable. That shocking moment may not be entirely fair in the way it is set up but I think Nesser handles it extremely thoughtfully and seriously, exploring it in a way and with a sense of empathy I would not have expected.

As powerful as that moment is however, I cannot overlook some of the frustrations involved in getting to that point. The lack of resolution for the locked room is one source of irritation as is the withholding of information needed to solve the crime ourselves. Perhaps if this had been pitched more as a thriller rather than a procedural I might have had more tolerance for the latter but unfortunately it fell short of my expectations in that regard.

The result is a book that intrigued me but left me hungry for more. Van Veeteren can be quite funny, albeit in a sort of dour and sarcastic way, and I would have liked more to delve a little deeper into his character to understand him better. Similarly I liked a lot of the characters who struck me as well-observed, particularly the rather odious headmaster of the school Mitter worked at, but Nesser stacks all the most entertaining figures at the start of the story.

Will I return for more? I expect so. There was enough here that I can certainly see the potential in the character and in Nesser’s engaging writing style. It may be a while though before I get around to it…

Further Reading

John Grant had a much more positive take on the novel than me, describing it as gripping, but we do share a disappointment with its locked room.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good
Helene Tursten
Originally Published 2018

Eighty-eight year old Maud is not the sort of person you would look at and think they were dangerous, let alone a killer! She is physically quite frail, tries to keep herself to herself and seems to live quite a comfortable lifestyle.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good collects five stories that feature the octogenarian committing murders. Given that we know who, the mystery lies in understanding why she wants someone dead or how she will accomplish the task.

The murders themselves range in credibility from some which take quite mundane approaches to extinguishing life to the outrageous one featured in the first story in the collection. Heads being pierced or crushed is a recurring theme so those who are sensitive to such things, be warned!

As usual with short story collections I provide thoughts on each individual story after the break below but there are some general points I’d like to make about the book.

Firstly, I found the collection to be about the right length. As much as I enjoyed the character and the premise, I think that it would stretch credibility to have her commit many more murders at her age.

Maud is an interesting creation and I enjoyed the little glimpses we get into her past. While some of those character moments are interesting, I do feel that the bigger mystery of how she evolved into the killer we encounter in these stories ought to be told and I do think this feels like its biggest omission.

All in all, I think the collection is a strong one. Its darker elements may not appeal to everyone but I admire its creativity and think it does a surprisingly good job of selling the idea that this elderly lady could commit these murders.

Continue reading “An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy”

Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk

Hard Cheese
Ulf Durling
Originally Published in 1971

A man is found dead with injuries to the back of his head in a locked room in a low-grade hotel. The owner of the hotel is adamant that no one could have entered the building during the night without his knowledge and the other residents seem to have been otherwise occupied yet there were three glasses set out in the man’s bedroom.

The book is broken into three unequal sections, each narrated by a different character. The first, narrated by Johan Lundgren who is a member of a crime fiction reading group is the most joyous. He tells us how the three members of the group go about taking the small amount of information they are given about the crime and start spinning fanciful theories about how it was done, all the while making little judgements and comments about the tropes of mystery fiction that will delight long-term readers of the genre.

I particularly enjoyed getting to know the three characters who made up the detective fiction club and seeing the ways they would interact with each other. These characters felt familiar to me and their excitement at encountering a puzzle like the ones they had read about in their own lives was rather infectious.

The second comes from the perspective of Gunnar, the policeman assigned to the case, and is pitched more in the PI mold. Where Johan span a solution in the Golden Age style, Gunnar seems set on a much simpler explanation and his investigation takes a different tack. Though less intellectual than that of the club members, he does uncover some interesting elements of the case and I enjoyed reading his thoughts about the three members of the club and their interference.

The final, shorter section comes from a third person and draws on elements of the other two investigations to present a solution. It is hard to go into much detail here, firstly because I want to avoid spoiling how the mystery is solved but also because this section is far more straightforward and less characterful than the two which preceded it. I did find it satisfying however and appreciated how well the solution is communicated.

This multiple narrative approach does mean that the book does feel a little disjointed though I enjoyed each part and saw the presentation to be an opportunity to comment on and pastiche two different forms of crime fiction, finding a middle ground with the last narrative. The book builds to a clever resolution of the mystery that struck me as being quite original.

But does it play fair? I have been struck in reading reviews of this how split reviewers are on this question. It is of course hard to answer without spoiling but in my opinion it meets the criteria of being fair because it does provide all of the information needed to successfully identify how the murder was achieved, even though it may require the reader to step away from the novel to piece everything together. I can see why some readers feel frustrated but I appreciated the tidiness and ingenuity of the method.

I think there might be more of a case to say that the novel isn’t playing fair with guessing the identity of the murderer and there I am less decided. All I can say is that I didn’t feel it was unfair when the revelation came although I was surprised by their identity.

I was a little less satisfied with the locked room aspect of the mystery and the relative simplicity of its solution. It did occur to me upon finishing the book that while I have really enjoyed several of the books I have read from Locked Room International, I have yet to actually find a book where the Locked Room aspect was really satisfying. If anyone has any recommendations I would be happy to entertain them!

Where Hard Cheese succeeded most for me was in its characters and its appealing structure. I found it to be frequently very funny and I thought Durling had some creative and interesting ideas. Unfortunately while Durling seems to have written quite a few mysteries following this, Hard Cheese is the only one currently available in English translation. Were more to appear though I would certainly want to give them a try.