Book Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn
By Janet WebbSeptember 22, 2022
Meet Billie Webster, Mary Alice Tuttle, Helen Randolph, and Natalie Schuyler—fierce women who comprise a unique female squad of assassins in Deana Raybourn’s new thriller Killers of a Certain Age. The “Museum”—the foursome’s shadowy non-governmental employer—deploys assassins to kill those who need terminating. What started with Nazis is now focused on arms dealers and money launderers, international pedophiles, and others of that ilk.
The quartet has been together for forty years. They were recruited in 1978 as part of Project Sphinx, but all good things come to an end. To commemorate their retirement, the Museum gifts them a luxurious Caribbean cruise.
Raybourn deftly mixes up the timeline: Their training under Constance Halliday, a legendary English spy; the completion of their first mission; and their killing swath across the globe. For their first assignment they are deployed as stewardesses on a private jet. Their mission is to kill a Bulgarian criminal and his henchmen. The weapon of choice is sodium thiopental. Helen wonders why they must kill them, knowing the plane will be abandoned mid-flight.
Because one must never leave anything to chance, Miss Randolph, their mentor explained. This is the only job where overkill is a good thing.
Things don’t go as planned but the foursome get the job done. They parachute out of the plane and are greeted by Miss Halliday. She examines the vital papers that Billie obtained by virtue of chopping off the hand of the Bulgarian’s secretary who was physically chained to his attaché case.
“Good work, Miss Webster,” she says in her clipped accent.
Billie gives her a nod and, without warning, rolls over onto all fours to vomit.
It is the greatest day of her life.
Forty more years follow of “balancing on that knife’s edge,” only to hang up their spurs. Billie makes a rueful analogy, saying it’s like going from playing high-stakes poker to nickel slots for the rest of your life. Not an easy transition for adrenaline junkies who are used to turning on a dime.
No matter how well you planned, no matter how extensively you prepared, something always went differently than expected. And every job was a chance to prove Darwin’s simple maxim: Adapt or die. We adapted; they died.
Given the women’s accomplishments, their retirement should be a time for accolades. But once on board the cruise, they ponder who they are without their secretive vocation. Being skilled assassins doesn’t protect them from the ailments and tribulations that are part of aging. At one point, Billie scarfs down a poached egg with a side of spicy relish which triggers a hot flash. Natalie—Nat—tells Billie where to find the nearest walk-in fridge and suggests she stand in it. Billie takes Nat’s advice, unconcerned about the possibility of any crew members seeing her out of place.
That’s the thing about being a sixty-year-old woman—no one notices you unless you want them to. That fact doesn’t do your ego any favors, but in cases like this, it was damned handy.
Blessed cool air and an array of fresh fruit—just what the doctor ordered. When the outer door opens, Billie ducks down, reluctant to be caught with a purloined mandarin orange. She sees a young man dressed in the liner’s uniform, but soon realizes it’s Brad Fogerty, a junior field operative from the Museum. Why is he masquerading as a crew member? Billy knows there are many reasons why another field agent might not make contact with them, and none of those reasons are good.
The foursome spring into action. Billie decides to search his cabin, Helen “the best pickpocket” of the group, nabs Executive Guest Services Coordinator Heather Fanning’s master key card which allows them to access Fogerty’s cabin. Helen finds a sleek leather attaché case containing a sophisticated lock/tumbler combo that will detonate in six hours. It’s a deadly speedball. Fogerty surprises the women and shoves Helen to the ground. Billie swings a chair at him but misses. They fight hand-to-hand and it gets desperate until Billie remembers she has Helen’s amber beads in her pocket. She throws them over his neck and chokes him for all she’s worth. He thrashes about, slaps out wildly, but eventually dies.
“What the hell kind of jewelry is this, Helen?”
She shrugged. “It was made for the Helsinki job and I liked how it looked with this dress, so I kept it.” She pushed a bead aside to show me how it was strung. “Piano wire. I used it on the head of the Finnish national bank.”
Whether they’re sixty or twenty, don’t bet against the collective powers of Billie, Helen, Natalie, and Mary Alice. They slip silently away from the cruise ship but not before they secretly ensure everyone on board will evacuate safely. Armed with Billie’s fake Canadian passport and a Black Amex card, they catch their breath in Nevis before descending on Billie’s New Orleans safe house/bolt hole. For reasons left to the reader to discover, they have become their employer’s prey. Muscle memory takes over and they swing into action. They will kill the men who wrote their death warrants before the three Museum directors know what hit them. Billie recognizes her three partners are “impossible old bitches” but they are also indomitable, intelligent, and inexorable.
Readers will adore Killers of a Certain Age, especially anyone who feels invisible—Raybourn posits that invisibility can be a secret weapon.