Gu Byeong-Mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife is a stand-alone thriller. First published as Pagwa in 2013, the 2022 English translation is by Chi-Young Kim.
Hornclaw is an unremarkable-appearing sixty-five-year-old woman. Hornclaw conscientiously avoids any detail that might stick in people’s minds. After all, it would not do to be a memorable-appearing “disease control specialist” … or as the police might phrase it if they ever caught her, assassin for hire.
Hornclaw — once known as Nails — has been murdering people for money for many decades. Her name may derive from her favored weapon, a poisoned blade that slides easily into astounded victims. She does not deal with clients herself. Selecting victims she leaves up to her agency superiors Mr. Sohn and his subordinate Worryfixer. Hornclaw focuses on the targets. Thus far, her track record has been admirable.
Hornclaw is careful about diet and exercise. The final discovery anyone foolish enough to confront her would make is that she is much stronger and faster than the ordinary sixty-five-year-old. Nevertheless, Hornclaw is painfully aware that time is catching up with her. She is not as strong or as fast as she used to be and she has alarming memory lapses.
If queried, Hornclaw would assert she is content with her lot, preferring solitary professionalism to the messy distractions of a personal life. Why then, does she own a dog? Why is she increasingly distracted by what she learns of her physician’s personal life? Is she becoming soft in her old age? Is it time to retire?1
Retirement may not be an option. Hornclaw thinks of fellow disease-control-specialist Bullfight as a kid whose inexplicable harassment she tolerates. Hornclaw should think of Bullfight as the son of a man she killed decades ago. Having located and assessed the person who murdered his father, Bullfight now wants to test his skills against Hornclaw’s….
But not in a fair fight. Step one: kidnap someone Hornclaw will have no choice but to rescue or die trying.
Although this novel is in almost every possible way unlike Funeral Songs for Dying Girls, there is in fact a plot development they have in common. It’s not a happy one — a detail thrown in to signify change and mortality — so I hope it’s not this week’s running theme. To say more would be a spoiler.
If you’ve ever thought that you would have liked the film John Wick with Kim Young Ok2 playing the title role, this may be the novel for you! Although The Old Woman With a Knife lacks the arcane secret societies featured in John Wick, it does have its own parallel society of formal murderers for hire, as well as prodigious amounts of violence.
Bullfight is quite keen to face Hornclaw but, not being an idiot, he will of course send legions of disposable mooks to soften her up first3. Presumably Hornclaw’s reputation does not precede her as Bullfight had no problem hiring an army. This may be one drawback of maintaining a low profile.
A detail North American audiences may want to bear in mind is that Korean fiction does not confer plot immunity on children. Therefore the fate of the girl Hornclaw is trying to save is very much up in the air (as it would not be in Hollywood film). Also, this is a stand-alone novel; don’t assume the author needs to keep Hornclaw alive and unharmed for the sequel.
Counter-intuitively, I found the biographical details portioned out through the book, and the musing on the life of the aging assassin more interesting than the big fight scene at the end. Nevertheless, this is a book I read in one swell foop. If your life has been missing a novel about an extremely stabby little old lady, this is the book you’ve been missing.
The Old Woman with the Knife is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Waterloo Region locals might try Words Worth Books.
1: By “retire,” Hornclaw means cash in her savings and open a small non-homicidal business at which she’d work as hard as she did killing people.
2: I don’t know who could star in an American film version of this book. But I do know that a film could not be made unless Hollywood could admit that sixty-five-year-old women exist and could make suitable protagonists.
3: Not being an idiot, she brings her guns.