An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (Nor Should She Be): You’ll Think Twice About Your Write-Off of Old Women After Reading Helene Tursten’s Tale of Intrigue

Preconceived notions are, of course, the unfortunate backbone that makes this world go hastily ‘round. It’s what saves us all time and effort when it comes to actually scratching beneath the surface of things. While a bittersweet reality of life, stereotyping is a lazy human phenomenon that works to eighty-something Maud’s advantage. For she is the eponymous “elderly lady” in Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good. And as such, everyone is quick to compartmentalize her as an “old bat,” above suspicion. Particularly of such sordid things as murder. After all, aren’t all old Swedish ladies sweet and feeble? Maud is perfectly happy to let the residents of Gothenburg continue believing so as she systematically eradicates anyone who poses a threat. Most usually to her longtime sanctuary: a sizable apartment in the Vasastan district of Gothenburg. With the building itself once owned by her father, upon his death their lawyer worked out an agreement with the new buyer: allow the widow and her two daughters to live in the apartment rent-free ad infinitum (or basically until death) and the building would be sold to him at the price of a song. With that, the buyer seemed to unwittingly make a deal with the devil, solidified by the insertion of a clause in their contract reading that “for as long as any member of the family wishes to reside in the apartment, no rent will be payable.” Many decades onward, it was clear no one had really thought the clause through, or believed that either of the daughters would still be staking their claim–but Maud does just that, defending her castle at all costs. For it is an asset highly coveted. 

Even by a rich celebrity like Jasmin Schimmerhof, daughter of two well-known Swedish personalities. After losing her mother to a car accident (fueled by inebriation) and her father to a much younger woman, Jasmin reemerged to write a tell-all, reigniting her notoriety. So naturally she bought an apartment in the same building as Maud with the success of her book (and the money it made). Her new pursuit? Why, art, of course. Maud’s internet research on said art turning up expectedly “anti-male” titles like Phallus I, Phallus II and Phallus III, all “grand statements” about the patriarchy. Maud balks at the screen, “It’s easy to criticize the patriarchy and the upper classes when you come from a privileged background and expect to inherit a fortune.” Maud, in contrast, worked for most of her life while renting out certain rooms in her large apartment for supplemental income (thank god or whoever for the one-off windfall of the apartment itself–again, this is why it’s her most prized and protected treasure). 

Thus, when Jasmin comes snooping around under the guise of striking up a friendship in the first chapter, “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodation Problems,” Maud smells an ulterior motive. Probably the way other people smell mothballs on her. Of course Jasmin wants to try to cozy up with the intent to propose an apartment swap. Or, as Maud breaks it down, “Needless to say, the ‘artist’ couldn’t buy her apartment in the usual way. No doubt she was used to fixing everything with her money, but in this case it wouldn’t work.” Yet, even though Maud knows she has the inalienable right not to be pressured to moving into some smaller ground floor apartment, the constant irritation of Jasmin knocking on her door with offers of pastries and fake pleasantry–suggesting that they ought to be simpatico since they’re both home all day–is too much to endure. Quite simply, Maud must take drastic measures to regain her freedom and solitude. Measures she’s no stranger to implementing when push comes to shove (no pushing people down the stairs pun intended). So, out of grudging necessity, Maud finally takes Jasmin up on her offer to come look at her apartment one day, at which time she overtly treats the “impromptu” (though very deliberate) visit like a real estate agent, upselling all the “features” of the space that might convince Maud to trade. Luckily for Maud, the strategic placement of one of Jasmin’s penis art installations abovehead like a chandelier works in her favor to make the murder look like an accident. Something that’s very much her modus operandi. 

Just as it is in the next chapter, “An Elderly Lady on Her Travels.” For yes, Maud does do a great deal of traveling, especially for someone of her age. Yet because she maintains that her life didn’t really start until thirty-something years ago when her sister, Charlotte, “died,” therefore relinquishing Maud of her caretaking duties, she’s adamant about frequent yearly trips. This year, however, she’s rather undecided, for she’s been to so many places already. Fortuitously, news of her ex-fiancé, Gustaf, getting married to an “actress” (mainly of the porn variety) about thirty years his junior, not to mention one of Maud’s former pupils, prompts her to book a trip to the same spa where said gold digger is languishing with a friend during her prep time before the wedding. And even though Gustaf might have broken things off with her thanks to his family forcing him to upon learning that Maud’s family was destitute after her father’s death unveiled such a fact, she still feels a certain loyalty to keeping him from being taken advantage of. So it is that another “accident” must be manipulated on Maud’s part thanks to the benefit of a cane wielded near one of the spa’s pools. 

As for Tursten’s initial inspiration for someone as cold and calculated in securing her needs as Maud, it came about with the writing of the first story, which she finished “in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company… Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal!” That first story appearing as the third chapter in the book, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime.” Her peace, in this instance, being affected by a drunk and abusive neighbor–a lawyer who constantly beats his wife and causes a ruckus that Maud can hear when she’s trying to achieve tranquility. Referring to the situation as “The Problem,” Maud ruminates on how to rid herself of it a.k.a. him as she also muses on the benefits the prop of a walker has given her in appearing unbesmirchable. After finding one left behind by a now deceased tenant (one she didn’t kill), Maud “quickly became aware of its advantages: it provided useful support, she could sit on it and have rest, she was suddenly offered a seat on the bus, people held the door open for her when she went into the stores and middle-aged female shop assistants started treating her politely… The walker was a brilliant acquisition.” Just another tool in the “trade” of being a “sweet old lady” as far as anyone else is concerned. 

This skill will turn out to be very useful indeed during her pièce de résistance of murder, an antique dealer named Frazzén who tries to take advantage of her when she goes to him with an example of some of her father’s gold and silver wares from the apartment that she’d like to sell for more travel money (bitch has wander.lust). Eagerly accepting her invitation to stop in after attending a memorial service (hence him wearing a heavy suit during a peak of warm weather) so that he can appraise the value before heading off on vacation, Maud’s suspicions about him are quickly confirmed when she leaves Frazzén alone in the room to fetch him a glass of water, at which time he starts riffling through the cabinets like a greedy leprechaun. It is this particular murder that comprises the final chapters, “The Antique Dealer’s Death” (uniquely told from another character’s perspective as opposed to a third person narrative) and “An Elderly Lady Is Faced With a Difficult Dilemma.” Yet there is no dilemma for Maud when it comes to exterminating someone, regardless of age or class, who trifles with her. Especially on the basis of underestimating her for her “elderliness.” Because behind that wrinkled bag of skin is a mind as sharp as a tack. A crafty motherfucker whose twinkling eyes have nothing to do with baking cookies or knitting socks and sweaters. And if you were Maud, maybe you’d use that false perception to your advantage, too. Like Paris Hilton in The Simple Life.

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