Killers of a Certain Age is a sharp mix of heist, thriller, mystery, and the type of story where, besides all that action, the four main characters are shifting from one phase of their lives to another. There’s a lot of chemistry, both literal and interpersonal, murder, plotting, hunting, and scheming. There’s also a lot of on-page murder, but because everyone who is dispatched is quite terrible, it didn’t bother me too much, especially not when they hunt nazis.
At the beginning of this story, Billie, Helen, Natalie and Mary Alice are on an all-expenses paid cruise to celebrate their retirement from killing lots of terrible people. But they spot someone on board who they know works for the same organization, and they realize that they have been targeted for elimination. So they have to go on the run and figure out what to do to stay alive and find out who ordered their deaths. The story alternates between the third-person origin story of the four women, and a first person account of the present day mayhem told by Billie, who was recruited and trained with the others.
In the chapters that follow their origins and their past missions, the reader learns how the four women sometimes worked together, or in sets of two or three, and how the training and effort they put into their individual assassination cases combines in the present day. In the present day sections, they have to work together to both manage defensive and offensive strategy. They are forced to rely on one another, and on very bare-bones methodology and clever ways of managing to hide. After 40 years of experience in subterfuge, recon, and killing, they know what they’re doing. They’re assassins, after all. Deadly competence porn ftw!
There are a lot of lead characters in the story, though Billie, as the present-day narrator, is the most prominent perspective. Few of the relationships beyond the four main women are developed significantly, but enough is present by the end that I kind of knew where and how everyone would be after the last chapter of the book. If you’re looking for the emotional catharsis of people finding each other and connecting and acknowledging their feelings about that connection, this is not that book. But if you like clever people doing everything they can think of to survive and being outrageously smart about it, you’ll like this story.
I inhaled this book in one day – when it gets going, it GOES. It’s very hard to put down. The part I liked best was how all of them, especially Billie, rely on stereotypes about older women to get past or through situations. Sexism and misogyny are deliberately used as camouflage in their plans and their daily work, and the snarky bits of humor that mock all the misogyny and ageist bullshit punctuate the perilous and tense moments.
Their greatest asset is that as women, and as women who are 60+, they are very used to being underestimated, ignored, or devalued. After 40 years as covert assassins, they know how to read a situation, track a subject, and create an opportunity to eliminate their target. And since the extra-govermental organization they work for began originally to hunt nazis and continued by eliminating human traffickers, drug smugglers, weapons dealers, and other walking (often wealthy) human rights disasters, they know that their targets are awful. They can get close to people in ways that others cannot, and they can instantly read a situation to their own advantage.
Watching them operate on several levels simultaneously is terrific fun:
They might look like Disney-sweatshirt, fanny-pack wearing lady tourists in ponchos, offering help to a lost person, but they’re also using that cover of “ignorable person” to manipulate guards into miscounting the total number of people that came in and out so they can hide overnight without being spotted.
Their constant audaciousness in plain sight, hidden behind misogynist and ageist assumptions, is delicious to read.
But beneath the audaciousness that makes me cheer for all of them, there’s the real acknowledgement that all that physical exertion has a physical cost, and that the events they are surviving have an emotional cost, too. The reality that they are aging is not entirely hard for them to accept. They’re aware – they’re about to retire at the start of the story. Even if society as a whole is ready to dismiss them as no longer of use, they’re crafty enough to know that’s not true. But they also have to acknowledge that they can’t physically do all of the things they used to, and that their ability to work as assassins, to be ‘of use’ to the organization they work for, is indeed coming to an end. That doesn’t mean they are no longer ‘of use’ in every respect, but their jobs have occupied a large portion of their lives, so if that one part is coming to an end, what does that mean for each of them?
So a lot of the book carries a theme of accepting changes that arrive upon them, but doing so on their terms, by their rules, and by refusing to back down. That poignant honesty affects each of them, and colors who they are, what their limits are now, how things have changed, and what their options may be. They struggle with that heap of changes while flat refusing to disappear as they are expected to.
I really, really liked this book. I could not stop reading it. I finished a workout and sat down on the floor to read a chapter. I forgot to finish my lunch while I was reading. It was delicious, extremely absorbing fun. The only thing I wished for was more: more development between the four women, and more explanation and connection with the people who were around them for the entirety of the present day story. I think readers who like thrillers, adventure stories, and watching terrible people reach terrible ends, and who adore audacious competence like I do, will really enjoy this book.
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Yes! I haven’t read the book and only skimmed the review, but I needed to see your grade. This is one of my most-anticipated reads after NONA. Can’t wait.
I haven’t read this yet but wow do I want this to be a movie!
Thank you, Darlynne! Deanna is my guest this week on the podcast, too, so if you’re curious, we have a spoiler-free discussion of how the characters used misogyny and ageism to get away with everything.
@Chris: It would be such a great film. I hope it’s been optioned.
@Chris: we can hope. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE… already proved that audiences can fall hard for a badass of a certain age.
I am awaiting a library copy of this book. Thanks for your review, Sarah, which is making me more eager to begin.
Great review of a great book. Read it in one day. Def needs to be made into a movie. Already the plot moves like a movie — I was thinking Helen Mirren for Helen’s character already — someone should send it to a director asap!
Yay, I’ve been looking forward to this one!
For years I’ve told my husband, the best assassins would be older women. After a certain age, you are totally off the radar of not just men, but women. As an older woman myself, I don’t find it troubling but freeing. I love that instead of people responding to my looks, they are responding to me. Can’t wait to read this one.
I just finished this and while I absolutely think it should be a movie, Helen Mirren and Diane Keaton are actually not the age range we’re talking here. I pictured them in my head at first, but then did some googling and they’re both into their 70s now.
My dream cast is actually Meg Ryan, Geena Davis, Andie MacDowell, and Jamie Lee Curtis. All kick ass women in their 60s who were idols of mine in the 80s and 90s, and could carry this movie brilliantly.
This is a damn good read, and I say that as far outside the target audience (early thirties). I appreciated the portrayal of my mother’s generation as hyper-competent badasses slipping under the radar because, of course, they’re harmless older ladies, what would you expect? Wicked bitchin’, as I think they say somewhere that is not California.
I was number 5 on a list of 128 holds, so I think my library system got the buzz. 😉
I have been recommending this novel to all my friends of a certain age! It was so very satisfying for all of us who are at the age where hunky young things address us as “ma’am”.
My husband started reading this book and thought I might like it. Mostly when he thinks I will like something, I don’t. But I always give it a try. I am always reading 3 books at a time. One on my night stand to put me to sleep, one on my kindle for those middle of the night wakeups to put me back to sleep and a audio book in my car. This time he was spot on. I loved this book and though I didn’t have time to read it straight through I always looked forward to getting back to the story. I stayed late to finish the last couple of chapters and kept falling asleep. I switched to my kindle so I would be fresh in the morning to finish it up. Loved this book and can’t wait for the movie. I agree with Emily about the casting.