The Old Woman With the Knife

The Old Woman With the Knife (2013, audiobook released 2022) by Gu Byeong-mo, translated by Chi-Young Kim. The author is a popular South Korean writer, but this is the only book she’s written that has been translated into English, that I could find.

Hornclaw has spent her career as a “disease control specialist,” the euphemistic name for an assassin at her “pest control” agency. She is 65, and most of the time appears to be a typical senior citizen, unless she opens her jacket and you see her knives sorted inside by type. She has survived to old age in her career by being the best, and not letting her emotions affect her job in any way.

Before she leaves her apartment on a job, she is sure to leave a window open for her elderly rescue dog, named Deadweight, in case she doesn’t return. She is resigned to continue working, despite her age, as assassins don’t usually get to retire and instead are killed on the job when they become too weak or make a mistake. She continues not only because she knows nothing else, but there’s a young male assassin, Bullfight, who always calls her “Granny” when their paths cross, and she’s sure he’s trying to push her out.

One day, she gets injured during a job and seeks medical attention, finding a different doctor there after-hours at the clinic she frequents. He patches her up, no questions asked, but she investigates him and his family so she can “take care” of things if he were to reveal her secrets. But she finds that he’s a good man, a good father, and cares for both his parents and his young daughter without a spouse, who has died.

Everything is not as it seems, as assassins’ lives are filled with double-crossing, years-old secrets and revenge, and sometimes, something worth fighting and killing for. If you like thrillers, aren’t squeamish about graphic violence, and are curious about and want to peek into South Korean culture and attitudes about aging, you might want to read it.

There is casual anti-fatness, which seems to be common in South Korean culture, but I don’t recall fatness being associated with any characters. I can’t call it weight-neutral, so I will consider it anti-fat biased, but fatness is not a focus of the book. If you are sensitive to casual, unkind comments about fatness being made, you probably want to pass this one by.

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