I’m a Deanna-Raybourn fan-girl and would read her napkin doodles, but I wasn’t sure about Killers of a Certain Age. I do love me older-women-kick-ass heroines and in this case, there are four, but I’ve never been able to stomach making heroes out of assassins, or heroines for that matter; as the narrator quips, “It was the Wild West with no law but natural justice”. Um, no, vigilante justice is problematic whether men or women exact it. In the end, Killers of a Certain Age entertained me, but wasn’t powerful enough to dispel my niggling ugh-assassins conscience. But a premise is a premise is a premise and it’s Raybourn’s, so I can’t fault her for it. If this were to be a series, I’d not follow Raybourn to the next book, but it looks, at least to me, it’s a standalone (I’d still argue the ending had a whiff of sequel-bait to it, though). But onwards to the merits and demerits of Killers. First, a bit of a synopsis courtesy of the publisher’s back-cover copy:
Older women often feel invisible, but sometimes that’s their secret weapon.
They’ve spent their lives as the deadliest assassins in a clandestine international organization, but now that they’re sixty years old, four women friends can’t just retire – it’s kill or be killed in this action-packed thriller.
Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills. When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they’ve been marked for death. Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They’re about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman–and a killer–of a certain age.
I think women-as-ethical-assassins (they only kill baddies, like former Nazis and dictators) was Raybourn’s frame for telling a feminist tale about powerful older women. It succeeds as entertainment, but fails as morality tale. Her characters are highly trained crack agents who use disguises to make themselves appear frail and old. My problem with this conceit is these women have turned sixty and as a woman-about-to-turn-sixty, the narrative’s peppering with their physical aches and complaints threw me out of the story. I’m a mushy-donut to their honed physiques and I don’t feel half as decrepit as they sometimes do. Maybe it works for other readers, but not this one. They also seem to have had their political consciences made in the hotbed of 1960s student protest? Again, as a woman of a “certain” age and time, I was a mere babe in the 60s and went to my first “protest” in 1982.
One proviso I need to make is that the “they” is a narrative “I”, the first of the assassins, Billie Webster. As a “voice”, Billie is the least likable of the bunch and though the most lethal, also the most emotionally vulnerable. She gave up a great guy years ago to continue to assassinate baddies and I didn’t quite understand why. It’s lovely that Raybourn reunites them and even gives us a soupçon of future happiness. Otherwise, Billie is tough, smart, determined, and a loner. Even though Billie protests her connection to her assassinating compatriots, I never quite saw it.
While the whole of Killers isn’t as good as some of its parts, some of its parts are terrific (and kept me reading). There’s humour:
“My mother always says it’s common as pig tracks to go around with a run in your stocking,” Helen says, eyeing Billie’s ripped hosiery critically. Billie rolls her eyes. “Helen, it’s murder, not cotillion.” “It’s not murder,” Helen corrects. “It’s an assassination, and you can make an effort to look nice.”
Three old women, nodding their heads like the witches in Macbeth. I’d known them for two-thirds of my life, those impossible old bitches. And I would save them or die trying.
(But again, “three old women” at 60? Isn’t it the new 50? or 40?)
They spend the next few minutes drinking silently. “Christopher Taverner,” he says finally. “Kit.” “Billie Webster.” “I know.” He lifts one brow and her cheeks go hot. Of course he knows. As leader of the mission, he’d have been given her dossier complete with photos. “They don’t do you justice by the way,” he tells her, intuiting her thoughts. “Well, they didn’t get my best side,” she says.
But it’s not enough, not for this reader.
In the end, Killers of a Certain Age is not quite caper, not quite feminist rallying-cry, not quite morality tale. It often doth protest too much: “…the Museum’s activities around the world, dispatching those field agents to safeguard democracy, to thwart absolutism, and to enact justice.” Uh, except for the little issue of all the good stuff we want in the world depend on the rule of law, not vigilante justice. I think one particular character, the man who recruits Billie Webster said it best: ” ‘My dear Miss Webster, that is rather the point. We don’t make killers. We simply find them and point them in the right direction. We know what you are.”
Deanna Raybourn’s Killers Of A Certain Age releases on Sept. 6th and is published by Berkley. I received an e-ARC from Berkley, for the purpose of writing this review, via Edelweiss Plus.