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I read this about ten years ago, I think, not certain whether it was as a physical book (if so, I feel like it would have been a hardback) or an eBook. There were two main female characters. The book starts with a woman being stalked in her apartment by the assassin, and either having a narrow escape, or seeming to be killed. The killed person was an associate or relative of the main characters, maybe one of their mothers. In the course of trying to figure out the murder scene, they find that their mothers are involved in a secret society that fights the Patriarchy, and has done so since somewhere in the American Revolution at least. One of the women was a police officer, or used to be one. They wind up following a linked list of clues hidden by this secret society, which eventually leads them to a buried cache of treasure and documents. I remember that one of the clues was in a hidden compartment in a beam at a historical site, which they found in part due to one of their mothers having taught them how to make a secret compartment in furniture. I remember that one of the documents basically showed that the Louisiana Purchase was invalid, which might mean the government would have to return the land to the Native Americans.

The assassin was one of the details that stuck out to me, and might have been what led me to the story from some site mentioning his ability to mold his facial features, something he apparently realized after a severe beating from his father (the way it was described made it seem a bit ambiguous as to whether he had broken bones in his face that he held in place through muscle control, or it was just being able to manipulate the shape of his face through some other ability). He was hired to kill them by members of another secret society, this one of men, who have wealth and privilege, and don't want any women to mess with their setup. I think they think they've killed the assassin early on, but he survives the experience to confront them at the cache of treasure, and they make a bargain with him where they leave with the documents and he gets to keep the buried treasure.

I remember that, at the time, my credulity was stretched both by how their scavenger hunt of clues would be derailed if, at any point, someone had removed a clue, or pursued the path (since I think the process of retrieving the clues damaged them), as well as by the idea of their being a secret feminist society who opposes a secret boy's club. It just felt very cartoonish.

This might have been the first book of a series, but I don't think I read any more than the first one.

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This is Jess Lourey's novel Salem's Cipher.

Description from the author's website linked above (emphasis mine):

Salem Wiley is a genius cryptanalyst, courted by the world’s top security agencies ever since making a breakthrough discovery in her field of quantum computing. She’s also an agoraphobe, shackled to a narrow routine by her fear of public places. When her mother’s disappearance is linked to a plot to assassinate the country’s first viable female presidential candidate, Salem finds herself both target and detective in a modern-day witch hunt. Drawn into a labyrinth of messages encrypted by Emily Dickinson and centuries-old codes tucked inside the Beale Cipher, Salem begins to uncover the truth: an ancient and ruthless group is hell-bent on ruling the world, and only a select group of women stands in its way.

And from one of the Goodreads reviews (emphasis mine):

Salem's Cipher is a fast paced thriller revolving around Salem and her childhood friend, Bel. The two women were raised under auspice of parents who belong to a secret society known as the Underground, a society that revolves around the power of the female. Of course, they are opposed by "the Order" a group of very powerful, extremely wealthy men. When Salem and Bel's mothers are kidnapped, they are charged with solving a series of ciphers in order to discover what is truly going on.

Another Goodreads reviewer describes it as "Dan Brownish, if Dan Brown had feminist sensibilities and a crash course in Women's Studies".

An excerpt available from the author's website includes the attempted assassination scene that you remember, with the face-changing assassin:

He cleaned and then sheathed his blade.
Next, he placed his gloved hands on each side of his skull. The shape of his face began to change, first the brow bones, advancing to the cheeks, and then the nose and mouth.
From long practice, he kept from crying out at the pain.
If he hurried, he could still acquire the women.

And this novel is indeed the first in a series.


After many failed attempts, the winning Google search query was thriller novel assassin "their mothers" secret society patriarchy, which led me to the Goodreads page linked above as the 3rd search result.

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  • Ah! Thank you. That one was bugging me. I even found my Goodreads review of the book, and boy, I really had words about this one. :-D Mar 28, 2022 at 14:11
  • @SeanDuggan Oh, ha! I didn't scroll down far enough to see your own review on that Goodreads page :-D (If you'd remembered that you'd reviewed it on Goodreads, would that have let you find it easily? Or does Goodreads not have a nice user:me search option?)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 28, 2022 at 14:14
  • I had actually scanned through my list of reviews, but the title didn't jump out at me, and I didn't think to search using my name. :-D Which does work for some books, I think maybe only the ones where I'm on the front page of reviews. Mar 28, 2022 at 14:24

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