Killers of a Certain Age, by Deanna Raybourn book review

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The Golden Girls wearing Uzis; Jessica Fletcher racing the heat; Miss Marple in the library brandishing nunchucks.

Let’s eliminate all condescending comparisons because “Killers of a Certain Ageby Deanna Raybourn — about four women who have reached the mandatory retirement age for professional assassins — is so inventive that the only aging jokes it deserves are those its characters make about themselves. Perhaps, hopefully, the condescension towards senior detectives and spies is dying out altogether, given the success of Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club. series and the boomlet of mystery and thriller novels featuring older protagonists, including “Ottessa Moshfegh”Death in his hands» and the next «Secret Livesby Marc de Castrique.

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The story of Raybourn opens in 1979, with our four heroines on their first mission, posing as air hostesses in a private plane to carry out the execution of a Bulgarian villain and his sidekick. . They rely on poison-laden hypodermic needles and, when things go wrong, their own highly trained bare hands and a knife. In the flashback chapters, Raybourn (author of the Veronica Speedwell series) describes how the young women were recruited by a covert operations organization known only as “The Museum”, an offshoot of the OSS and its British counterpart, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Qualifying for an all-female team known as “Project Sphinx”, their job was “to weed out people who need to be killed”.

Rayburn’s story oscillates between the quartet’s early exploits and the present, when their collective career draws to a close. Now in their 60s, their lives have been marked by change and loss. Helen, whose “refined” beauty was once compared to Jackie Kennedy, is a widow stuck in grief. Mary Alice struggles to back up her fake cover stories to her beloved wife about her ‘work trips’. Natalie, once an attractive “brat”, discovers that her sex stocks have dropped along with her breasts. Billie – our main character and part-time narrator – tries to stifle the regrets about all the years she let work take over her private life.

When the women receive an invitation for an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise offered by the Museum to celebrate their retirement, they reluctantly gather on board for a forced merriment.

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But fate has something else in mind. Experiencing an intense hot flash (avoid eating spicy foods!), Billie dives into an insulated refrigerator to relieve herself. When she emerges, she spots a former co-worker – an explosives expert named Brad – posing as a crew member. It doesn’t take long for women to realize that cruising is a ploy to round them up for effective elimination. But why? Before they can solve this mystery and save their lives, the retired Sphinxes must face the vicious Brad.

What ensues is an extended escape executed by this quartet of rogue agents to find out who at the Museum marked them for death. From a dinghy adrift in the Caribbean to a safe house in New Orleans to the English mansion where women’s training began decades earlier, the book sweeps across place and time. “Killers of a Certain Age” is a singular suspense story thanks to its deftly fluctuating tone, by turns comedic, violent and unexpectedly touching.

When the women first gather on this ill-fated cruise ship, they lament the abrupt end to a career – however gruesome – that gave their lives meaning:

“If I had known that my job in Qatar was my last, I would have paid more attention to it,” says Helen.

“I would have paid more attention to each one of them. It went so fast that I’m going to miss the adrenaline,” says Natalie. make you feel that living?”

Indeed, Billie agrees: “It’s like going from high stakes poker to nickel slots for the rest of your life.”

Sure, the women talk about their craft as black ops assassins, but it’s impossible not to root for these dangerous ladies and their refusal to be thrown on the ash heap – a phrase that, in this thriller, must be taken at the foot of the letter.

Maureen Corrigan, book reviewer for the NPR program, Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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