Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Wednesday, August 3, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Killers of a Certain Age

Berkley Books: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Berkley Books: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Berkley Books: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Berkley Books: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Killers of a Certain Age

by Deanna Raybourn

November 1979. Four young female flight attendants prepare for the arrival of VIP guests on a private flight. But instead of making sure the passengers will be comfortable, the women are there to murder them. Talk about flying unfriendly skies. Thus begins Deanna Raybourn's rousing, jet-paced thriller Killers of a Certain Age.

Billie, Helen, Mary Alice and Natalie were recruited in the 1970s by a clandestine international organization they called the Museum, which trained assassins to neutralize dictators across the globe. The women were part of Project Sphinx, the very first all-female assassin squad. Their mentor was Constance Halliday, a legendary former member of England's disbanded Special Executives Office, which engaged in espionage during World War II. Each young recruit developed a deadly specialty: Natalie "loves anything that makes a noise, bombs and grenades and the biggest guns she can get her tiny hands around"; Mary Alice "discovers an affinity for poisons, slipping harmless substances into the food... in order to practice her sleight of hand"; Helen's eye for detail serves her well as a sharpshooter.

It took Billie a little while longer, but she eventually found her strength in hand-to-hand combat. As she told Constance in the beginning, she didn't like relying on a weapon that could be taken away from her. One day, when Billie finally, gleefully beat her trainer Mad Dog in a brutal scuffle, Constance pointed out to her: "It isn't your anger that will make you good at this job. It is your joy."

The Sphinxes always worked together on missions, and their combined talents made them unstoppable. After 40 years spent assassinating people whose termination the Museum deemed necessary to make the world a better place, the four killers, now in their 60s, have retired.

Their employers mark the occasion by inviting the ladies on an all-expenses-paid cruise to the West Indies. While enjoying Bloody Marys and mimosas on the ship, Billie spots a junior field operative for the Museum. There's only one reason for his presence on board: he's on a job. And his mark(s): one or all four of his former colleagues. What follows is an explosive chase as the Sphinxes try to stay alive and ahead of assassins from the Museum, which now wants the women dead for a reason unknown to them. Can they survive going up against the very organization that created them, and younger killers whose knees don't pop from exertion? 

It's clear how much Raybourn enjoys writing about the adventures of these formidable women. The body count is high, but so is the number of chuckles elicited by observations from Billie and her teammates. While they're searching a killer's room, a book fell out, "a worn paperback written by a man who was in love with guns and his own penis and probably not in that order." Looking for a tail as she walks through the streets of New Orleans, Billie sees a killer "dressed like a tourist, tucking his T-shirt into belted jeans like a sociopath." Regarding Midsomer Murders, the long-running British TV series, Billie remarks, "I'm pretty pissed they thought of using a wheel of cheese to kill somebody before I did."

The action scenes are as cinematic as set pieces from a James Bond movie. But Billie and her squad aren't great operatives because their skills are equivalent to any man's; they're empowered because they're women. Since most security people are men and "most men are terrified of periods," Billie muses, "I couldn't count the number of times we'd stashed weapons in maxipads, douches, or vaginal itch creams." And if they were underestimated as younger women, they've become even more invisible as older women, something they use to their advantage to stay alive. They stay off the grid by communicating via an app that tracks hot flashes, and move through crowds without attracting any attention by wearing gray wigs and tacky touristy sweatshirts.

The women remain as sharp as ever in their later years, but their bodies have other ideas. Time takes its toll on them. as it does on anyone. The Sphinxes battle breast cancer and struggle with grief from the death of a spouse and their backs seize up when they're taking down an opponent. They're not superheroes; they're just like us. These details don't make the women seem weaker, but rather that anyone can be exceptional.

And lest anyone forgets Raybourn's work has also been nominated for Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Awards, the author gives her Sphinxes active love lives, including a marriage with another woman and a sexy, forbidden romance with another operative that gives new meaning to the term hot flashes. Infused with humor, high-flying action, sharp dialogue and engaging characters, Killers of a Certain Age is a delight for readers of any age. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Berkley Books, $27, hardcover, 368p., 9780593200681, September 6, 2022

Berkley Books: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Deanna Raybourn: Killin' It

(credit: Holly Virginia Photography)

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Deanna Raybourn is known for her historical series featuring amateur sleuths Lady Julia Grey and Veronica Speedwell. Though most of those novels are set in Victorian England, Raybourn is a sixth-generation Texan living in Virginia. After earning a degree in English and history, she married her college sweetheart and taught high-school English before turning to writing full-time. Her work has been nominated for Edgar and Agatha awards, among others. Killers of a Certain Age, about four retired female assassins in their 60s who are suddenly targeted for death, is her first contemporary novel and will be published by Berkley on September 6, 2022.

How much research did you do for this novel and how much fun did you have? The recipes for poison seem very plausible.

I had an incredible amount of fun plotting my fictitious murders! I've done a fair bit of research on poison for my historical novels, so I had a good idea of where to start with the work on this book. It would have been easy to create some mythical, untraceable toxin, but I wanted this to be a bit more realistic. Since they're on the run, my assassins don't have the luxury of a lab or chemists for these hits, so I had to work with items that would be easily obtainable. Luckily for me, we're surrounded by potentially fatal substances so I had a lot of options. (This is where I should probably post a disclaimer and say please don't experiment with any of the methods in this book.)

The women are vital and deadly but realistically experiencing some physical signs of aging in the present-day scenes. Tell us about your decision to write about female assassins in their 60s.

My publisher came to me and asked for a book about badass older women. What form that would take, the setting and plot, how old they would be--all of that was entirely up to me. I've always written characters younger than I am, which is easy; if you've lived it, you can draw on your own experiences.

But I wanted to push myself and write a little older. These characters were born about 10 years before I was, so they're half a generation removed. Our cultural references are not quite the same, our situations in life are a little different, but we have enough in common that I was able to look ahead a decade and estimate where this foursome would be. There's a poignant element to knowing that some aspects of life are completely finished and you're never going back. But that's also incredibly freeing. Aging has its compensations, and for everything you give up, you gain something.

They all have distinct personalities and different strengths. Who did you find easiest to write and why?

Billie was both the hardest and the easiest. We're both from Texas, we're both stubborn and independent. But getting her voice exactly right was an elusive thing. I had to write through and toss out a few scenes until I cracked it--and I still don't know how or why it finally clicked. I just know one day I sat down and I had her. My husband read the scene and pointed out it was basically my Twitter feed as a novel, and I was so annoyed that he was right. If I'd known that earlier, it would have saved me a lot of writing!

The action scenes are so cinematic. Were you inspired by any movies?

I had a watch list of films that kept me in the right headspace, whether it was for the action scenes or for scenes of women working together--Wonder Woman, Ocean's Eight, Killing Eve, Spy, Atomic Blonde.

That's the perfect list for this book.

I still go back and watch scenes when I need to pump myself up for something. I also have a husband who has directed stunt shows and a friend who is a stunt performer. I had them read the most complicated fight scene just to make sure it would work physically.

And I had to balance the experience and techniques of my characters with the fact that they're older, so whatever they do, they're going to feel the aftershocks. They can't have an incredibly intense hand-to-hand fight and just shake it off like they could in their younger days. They need yoga and ibuprofen and ice packs, but they still have a lot of fight left in them.

After multiple successful historical series, what prompted you to write your first contemporary novel?

I was really excited by my publisher's invitation to write something about strong older women, but they expected another historical. I knew immediately that I wanted to do something completely different. I didn't just want to leave my comfort zone with this; I wanted to burn it down. The chance to do something so utterly outside your range doesn't come along that often, and after I've gotten relaxed with my writing, I like to terrify myself a bit. That's how I grow as a writer. I've done things with this book I never imagined I could do, and that's hugely gratifying.

What were the differences in your process, if any, between writing historical and modern stories?

The process is basically the same. I make a playlist and a collage of images, read lots of nonfiction and some fiction of the period, and I watch films that tap into some element of what I'm trying to write. I also try to stay pretty far away from reading any contemporary fiction that's similar to what I'm writing.

Is this the beginning of a series? If yes, what's next for Billie and her colleagues?

I have a few ideas in mind of what I'd like to do next. We'll just have to wait and see. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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