As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today: a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist. I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.
As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden. If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out. Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed) they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge. They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months. Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction. Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork. One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies. A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!
Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit. If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).
The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic. As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:
then, she came to me: Maud. She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies. But inside she was quite special. Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal! Even . . . a murderer. I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company. But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”
Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation. I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.
Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed. This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together. Maud’s habits are another connecting thread. She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone. When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone. Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished. Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.
Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories. Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building. As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:
I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy. I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is. I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell. In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery. At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging. It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!
When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor. What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home? I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way. The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining. Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?
An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same. Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two. Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory. Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good. I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.
Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud. As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month. They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan. Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.
Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.
In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject. As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other. I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense. By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events. In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:
Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;
Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;
Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;
Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.
And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:
So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks! Now on to the next adventure: