67 pages 2 hours read

Deanna Raybourn

Killers of a Certain Age

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide



Killers of a Certain Age is a 2022 contemporary thriller by American author Deanna Raybourn. The work’s title is a play on the euphemistic reference to older women as “of a certain age” rather than calling them middle-aged, elderly, or senior citizens. Raybourn has previously achieved recognition for her historical mysteries, such as the Lady Julia Grey mysteries and the Veronica Speedwell mysteries. These works often feature women as sleuths pursuing romance as well as adventure. Her books have achieved recognition within the mystery genre, including nominations for the Edgar and Agatha Awards. Many of her works, including Killers of a Certain Age, are New York Times bestsellers.

This guide uses the 2022 Kindle edition of Killers of a Certain Age.

Plot Summary

The work begins with an Authors’ Note instructing the reader that the work is fictitious in the interest of many people’s safety.

The first chapter opens with a flashback to November 1979. Raybourn intersperses episodes from the group’s past throughout the present-tense narrative. In 1979, four young women, Billie Webster, Helen Randolph, Natalie Schuyler, and Mary Alice Tuttle are on a flight over Europe. This is their first mission for a clandestine assassination agency known as the Museum. They successfully pose as airline stewardesses to assassinate a corrupt Bulgarian official, while fending off sexual harassment from both their target and their coworkers.

The narrative then moves to the present, in which Billie explains that she is a newly retired assassin, and her assassination agency, the Museum, began with a mandate to target former Nazis and now only targets war criminals and other malefactors. Billie and her friends Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie were the agency’s first all-female assassination squad. Now, the four are on a retirement cruise in the Caribbean. Helen is newly widowed, and Billie is feeling particularly ambivalent about life without employment. Mary Alice has never told her wife what she does for a living and is relieved she will be able to avoid the truth now. Raybourn then flashes back to the younger Billie’s recruitment into the Museum. Her recruiter, Richard Halliday, tells her he is certain she has a talent for killing and that his sister Constance Halliday is recruiting her into a new all-female assassination squad.

On the cruise, Billie sneaks into the freezer to fend off a hot flash and recognizes a Museum colleague. She and her friends realize that if a Museum member is on board and has not introduced himself, they may be his targets. Billie and Helen investigate his room and find an explosive only he can disarm, but Billie is forced to kill him before she can get the code. The four women decide to set a fire on the boat, using the ruse to fake their own deaths. They make their escape, and Raybourn flashes back to their recruitments when Constance tells them of their mission to be sphinxes, feminine assassins the world will always underestimate.

The four friends regroup in the Caribbean, and Billie works on new identities for each of them. Mary Alice is struggling emotionally as her wife thinks she is dead. They retreat to Billie’s house in New Orleans, a dilapidated former convent. Billie introduces them to her protege, Minka, who is an expert forger and computer expert. Billie explains to Minka that the plot against them must originate within the Museum’s executives, known as its directors. They consider contacting the assistant directors, known as curators, but first reach out to a former colleague, Charles Sweeney, with whom Natalie has a romantic history. Billie arranges a meeting with Sweeney in New Orleans and learns he believes the four women are taking unauthorized assassination jobs for money.

The flashback chapters continue with the four women’s training under Constance, with Billie discovering a passion for hand-to-hand combat. As the narrative returns to the present, Mary Alice’s wife, Akiko, arrives in New Orleans and absorbs the shock that her wife is an assassin. The four experts meet Sweeney, and Billie realizes he is there to kill them and collect a bounty. She signals Helen to shoot him, but Helen freezes, so Billie takes the shot.

When the four regroup, Billie conceals the fact that Helen froze in order to protect her. Billie contacts Museum curator Martin Fairbrother, who tells her someone submitted a dossier to the Museum containing evidence that the four women were corrupt and accepting jobs as hired assassins. Martin warns her that the organization’s leaders will send more agents to kill them. Billie learns from another Museum member, Naomi Ndiaye, that the board may be protecting a corrupt agent, the person who is actually taking assassination jobs for money. The women decide their only path to survival is to eliminate the Museum’s Board of Directors.

As the group prepares to leave New Orleans, Helen reminds Billie of her lost love, Christopher Taverner. A flashback to 1981 depicts Billie and Taverner’s instant chemistry and forbidden liaison. In the present, the women decide their next destination will be Benscombe, the Hallidays’ old estate in Dorset, England, which Helen now owns. Benscombe will make a good base from which to track two of the Museum’s board members, Paar and Carapaz, who reside in Europe. Minka sets up communications for the women via a menopause app on their phones, and they depart for England.

Their first assassination target is Gunther Paar, the head of the Museum’s Acquisitions department, which handles logistics. Raybourn introduces him in a flashback where he posed as a priest so the four women, dressed as nuns could assassinate a corrupt bishop in the Vatican with poisoned bread pudding. They learned on this mission that Paar is a devotee of Swiss spas, so the team tracks him there. They use Minka’s sleuthing skills to book a room at the resort where he stays, planning a poisonous spa treatment via a nicotine infusion into his mud bath. The assassination succeeds, and they make it appear as a choking accident.

The next flashback involves Billie’s previous mission to Zanzibar, which has implications for their current mission. In the flashback, Billie’s team is tasked with the murder an elderly Nazi, the Baroness von Waldenheim, and with returning her looted art to its rightful owners. Billie is drawn to a painting, The Queen of Sheba Arising, and its depiction of a powerful feminine ruler. On the mission, Billie also learns that Carapaz, then a Museum agent, dreams of purchasing the Parisian townhouse belonging to the family that employed his parents. In the present day, Minka verifies Carapaz now lives in the townhouse, and Natalie and Billie plan a mission to infiltrate his home via the Parisian catacombs. Before they leave, Mary Alice finally convinces Billie to explain to her what truly happened in New Orleans, and Billie expresses confidence Helen will recover her skills. Natalie and Billie successfully neutralize Carapaz, though Billie is injured. Billie takes a dossier from his bedroom she hopes might be relevant to their mission.

The last flashback returns to the mission in Zanzibar and concerns the final target, Vance Gilchrist. In the recollected scene, Billie kills Baroness von Waldenheim to save Vance, but he is enraged. Vance feels threatened by Billie’s capability and tells her she will never be his equal. The Queen of Sheba Arising is damaged when the Baroness shoots the painting in the melee.

Returning to the present, Billie reviews the dossier and sees it is a copy of the one submitted to the Museum, which frames the four women as corrupt assassins for hire. Billie realizes that Vance, who has continued to harbor animosity towards her for years, is also working with Martin—though the author conceals this information from the reader. Martin leads Billie to the place Vance plans to trap her: an auction of The Queen of Sheba Arising painting from the Zanzibar mission. Billie tells the others they will also take out Martin, though the text does not name him as the target. Billie constructs a plan, implying it will involve sacrificing herself. The next day, Billie discovers Helen and the others have invited Taverner to assist them. The two reconcile, and Billie decides to make use of Taverner’s arsenal of firecrackers. As a strategic move, Billie intentionally alerts Vance to their location.

In London, Billie watches the painting’s sale and listens to Vance taunt her for sending a text with her location services on. He tells her they are going to Benscombe. On the drive, Billie finds Martin is also in the car as Vance caught on to his plan to have the board assassinated by framing the four women, which would have allowed Martin to take over the Museum. They arrive at Benscombe, and as Vance gloats about his ability to take over the Museum and achieve final vengeance against Billie, the room explodes. The team goes into action: From a secure bunker, Minka and Akiko hurl potatoes filled with firecrackers. Billie defeats Vance in hand-to-hand combat, stabbing him with a hair barrette. Helen shoots Martin before he can escape with Billie as his hostage.

While Helen’s gun is still raised, Naomi arrives, explaining she has long been after Martin and cannot prove his guilt. She believed the four women would expose him for her, hoping they would manage to save their own lives. Naomi promises Billie and the others she will restore the organization to its original values. Billie and the others plan vacations to various locations, and Billie hopes to reunite with Taverner. A final author’s note warns the reader not to look for any of the characters, for their own safety.

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