By Margaret S. Hamilton
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 Age.
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 expert.
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 Paris catacombs:
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 characters?
I enjoyed this book overall. But my favorite series that fits this criteria is the Mrs. Pollifax series.
Killers come in all sizes. Male and female. Young, middle-aged, old. It's fun to have a series that feature middle-aged women.
Whoa! Definitely on my list. Related, but not quite the same, has anyone else seen the now aged movie REDS? I often watch it when I need a laugh. It hold up well.
Love middle-aged women in series leads—in fact, I love them so much I write them! (I also enjoy movies with middle-aged women in leads. Unfortunately, there aren't too many of those...)
Mark, thanks for stopping by. Yes, the Mrs. Pollifax books are fun.
Kathleen, I agree!
Kait, Helen Mirren in Red is my favorite of her roles. What a great movie!
Lori, I also have a middle-aged protagonist in my books.
Middle-aged protagonists are just fine with me, although my FAVORITE middle-aged protagonist is one I've followed through a long series in which I first met them as young-adult protagonists. I enjoy knowing them like the back of my own hand... like they are a part of MY tapestry.
Thanks for this review. Deanna Raybourn is my number-one favorite author, and now, thanks to this post, I know her from a completely new perspective.
Pamela, thanks for commenting. This book is my introduction to Deanna's writing and I'm anxious to read more.
Interesting review. I had no idea about Rayburn. I’ll check this one out….literally
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