I’m a fan of middle-aged
women as the lead characters in crime fiction, particularly Deanna Raybourn’s
group of four highly-trained professional assassins in Killers of a Certain
The “Sphinxes,” named for
the ancient Greek lionesses with a woman’s face and upper body, have worked for
forty years as assassins for the “Museum,” an organization founded after World
War II by former OSS and OES agents. Narrated by Billie, their de facto team
leader and hand-to-hand combat expert, the narrative shifts between past
assignments and their present circumstances. Helen is the team sharpshooter,
the refined daughter of an OSS agent. Mary Alice knows almost every poison on
the planet, and discovers more during her career. Natalie is their explosives
Billie’s life is her job,
her only family and friends her three Sphinx teammates. She reflects on her
experience as an assassin when she descends into the bone-lined walls of the
But this wasn’t the kind of death I was used to. We dealt it out, quick
and clean. Depending on whether the mark had been shot or stabbed or poisoned,
the smell would be different. Blood was sharp and metallic; poison could be
pleasant—I had a soft spot for botanicals. Hang around too long and you’d smell
other, worse things as the body settled into the relaxation of death. But the
first few minutes could be perfectly tolerable if you weren’t too squeamish
about the odor of blood. (p.249)
In the late seventies, the
four women were trained as an all-female unit, taught to exploit their
femininity as they eliminate their targets. During the forty years the
narrative covers, Raybourn explores the journey of women fighting to become
equal to men. She also includes a humorous venture into menopause.
When the Sphinxes turn
sixty, they celebrate their retirement by taking a Caribbean cruise. Alas, they
recognize one of their young Museum colleagues and realize they are no longer
the huntresses, but the hunted. The present-day plot is set in the Caribbean,
New Orleans, Paris, a Swiss spa, and the venerable brick Victorian mansion in
Dorset, Benscombe House, where they were originally trained.
Past missions to Nice,
Zanzibar, and the Vatican are interspersed with present day action.
Relationships with their male colleagues are explored, including those who
currently serve on the Board of Directors.
A Renaissance painting
stolen by the Nazis, Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Queen of Sheba Arising,
plays a role in the ultimate take-down. Anguissola was a noted female artist,
the Queen of Sheba a common subject for paintings during the sixteenth century.
The Sphinxes prevail in fine
style, using MacGyver-style components from hardware and dollar stores, and
with a little help from their friends. And then the four enjoy a well-earned
retirement, though I wonder if their future services will be requested by a new
Museum board of directors.
Readers and writers, have
you enjoyed mysteries and thrillers with middle-aged women as the lead