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Killers of a Certain Age–all-female assassin squad
Killers of a Certain Age
by Deanna Raybourn
It is with mixed feelings that I review Killers of a Certain Age. I think I wanted it to have the same vibes as The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osmond, but that is not really fair. I knew going in that the story was about a group of retired female assassins, but that summary does not encapsulate Deanna Raybourn’s story satisfactorily.
The beginnings of the larger group which calls itself by the code name “the Museum” are people who were frustrated at the escape of so many Nazis who were slipping away from (and sometimes with the help of) various governments after World War II. They decided to pursue justice. When most of the Nazis had been tracked down and “disposed of,” they turned their attention to other “targets that had been scrupulously vetted and chosen because their deaths would benefit humanity as a whole.” Their mission was to bring justice, not to pursue what was lawful. Bottom line: the end justifies the means. The philosophy underlying the plot makes me uncomfortable. I am trying to disregard those feelings as I review the book.
Killers of a Certain Age has four main characters, the women who spent the last forty years killing specific targets only as assigned. They were not allowed to have outside contracts. These agents were chosen, recruited, and trained by the administration of the Museum. They trusted the board members and fully expected to live out their retirement years with a good pension. Unfortunately, there are political happenings with the organization and putting out a “hit” on these women is part of the fallout.
The backgrounds of the assassins are interesting as well as their relationships with each other. The story is told by relating current events as well as including chapters that reveal the details of prior assignments. The women are well-trained and use their respective skills to compensate for the decline of physical strength and flexibility brought on by age. The reader has a first-hand view of their plan to save themselves without hurting innocent bystanders.
Although I didn’t enjoy Killers of a Certain Age, I did appreciate the women’s attempts at dark humor. I commend the author for her writing skills and her creation of a complex plot. My favorite aspect of the book lies in the ingenious codes used to communicate secretly. I’m sure that a lot of readers will give the book two thumbs up, but it was just not the right read for me.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Category: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense
Notes: Lots of violence and bad language
Publication: September 6, 2022—Berkley (Penguin Random House)
The tunnel led into a courtyard bordered by four brick buildings, each one more decrepit than the last. The facades, linked by galleries and staircases, leaned against each other for support like elderly women having one last gossip.
We looked like a girl gang that would have the Queen as our leader, all low heels and no-nonsense curls. Mary Alice had even tucked butterscotch candies in her purse, which she handed out to porters in lieu of tips.
Two good hits and the lock dropped off. “Subtle,” she said. “Natalie, I’m tired, I am covered in mud that is at least seventy percent dead people, and I am hungry. Do not test me.”
Code Girls–The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II
by Liza Mundy
Nonfiction has the potential to be deadly boring or magnificently interesting. Liza Mundy’s Code Girls without a doubt falls into the latter category. It is not an easy read, but it is fascinating. Code Girls tells the tale of the essential role the code breakers, who were mostly women, played in the eventual Allied defeat of the Axis nations in World War II. If you are envisaging a handful of young women holed up in a room in D.C., think again. The Army’s code breakers numbered 10,500 with 70% of them women and most working out of the Arlington Hall campus in Virginia. The Navy’s group numbered 10,000 with half of those stationed in D.C. of which 80% were female. Both groups rose to those numbers from a mere 200 code breakers each in a short amount of time. These women came from all walks of life and backgrounds. Among the first recruited were college educated, low paid, school teachers at a time when a low priority was placed on education for women. Many of these women had a background in math and science, and all had a good memory. They were analytical and could approach problems in novel ways.
The code breakers’ stories went untold for most, if not all, of their lives because they were sworn to secrecy. They considered the work they did a duty of honor to their country and to the men in their lives. They understood that their work could literally save lives, perhaps even of their own loved ones, by intercepting and decoding enemy messages. It is a testament to their trustworthiness that Germany and Japan never knew that their transmissions had been intercepted. Even roommates and spouses could not speak of their work outside of their assigned workplace.
The author, Liza Mundy, had two hurdles to jump, both of which she accomplished with finesse. The first was her thorough research which is documented through 39 pages of notes and bibliography. Then she wove the hard facts into a narrative with a very personal touch derived from many interviews. She doesn’t just write that Washington, D.C. was inundated with uninitiated girls pouring in from all over the country needing housing, food, transportation, and training. She presents the scenario through the eyes and voices of the “girls” who lived it. Not everyone, of course, had the same experiences, and those experiences varied according to many factors including whether they were working for the Army or the Navy. They arrived with no assignments, just the promise that they would be helping their country.
The war period (1939-1945) was a time of great social upheaval. For most people, a woman’s place was in the home. Suddenly men were going overseas and their jobs needed to be filled along with positions created by the manufacturing needs of the war machine. There were many stereotypes that were broken down, and others that were not put to rest so willingly or easily.
Code Girls is masterfully written and a wonderful tribute to those women whose secrets can now be told. It should be “required reading” for all Americans who don’t want history to repeat itself, for readers who want to understand what previous generations endured to stand against tyranny, and for men and women interested in the societal changes that occurred as a result of World War II.
Category: History, Nonfiction
Notes: The author sets the stage for the reader through her own notes as to how the book was written, information on the initial recruitment of women, and an introduction that discusses society in the U.S. at that tine and the military’s “bold” decision to recruit women. My copy of the book has an “Afterword for the Paperback Edition” in which the author shares the overwhelming response her book received from the code breakers and their families. The book also includes photographs of some of the women interviewed and more generic photographs of the code breakers at work. There is also a “Glossary of Code-Breaking Terms,” a very valuable “World War II Timeline,” and a “Reading Group Guide” of discussion questions.
Publication: October 20, 2017—Hachette Books
Successful code breaking often comes down to diagnostics—the ability to see the whole rather than just the parts, to discern the underlying system the enemy has devised to disguise its communications. The Japanese, Agnes diagnosed, were encoding their messages and then using something called columnar transposition, which involves writing the code groups out horizontally but transmitting them vertically, aided by a grid with certain spaces blacked out, whose design changed often.
It was the first time many of the women had spent time in a bona fide workplace—apart from a classroom—and they discovered what workplaces are and have been since the dawn of time: places where one is annoyed and thwarted and underpaid and interrupted and underappreciated.
She and the other women knew that ship sinkings were the logical and desired consequence of their concerted efforts. They did not feel remorse. America was at war with Japan; Japan had started the war; the lives of American men were at stake, not to mention America itself. It really was that simple.