Book review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who is Vera Kelly? set across dual timelines (1957 and 1966) and two countries (Maryland, USA and Buenos Aires, Argentina) is coming of age meets coming out meets espionage with a side of literary historical fiction.

Vera Kelly is a troubled teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. Her mother lands her in a juvenile detention centre after she steals a car. When released she moves to Greenwich Village in New York City and works night shift at a radio station and tentatively explore the queer scene.

On a Tuesday I came home from school to an empty house, watched the evening news, and then took Equanil caplets lifted from my mother. Nothing happened, so after an hour I took three more, and then maybe after that, I can’t remember.

Vera Kelly is a young CIA agent with a flair for electronics on her first big mission to Buenos Aries during the Cold War in the lead up to a coup. Revolución Argentina would establish Juan Carlos Ongania as defacto president. Vera rents an apartment and pretends to be a Canadian student befriending a group of local students suspected of being KGB agents.

I had found the apartment in San Telmo with the help of a motherly rental agent in a pink suit who had tried to cheat me on her percentage not once but twice, and reacted with a broad and charming laugh both times I pointed it out, as if we were flirting on a date and I was removing her hand from my thigh.

Vera bugs the students bicycles and with the help of a local contact, the Argentina Vice President’s office, tracking the students movements during the day and transcribing conversations from the officials office at night. When the coup seems imminent Vera decides to action her escape plan but the borders are closed faster than she can escape. Upon returning to her apartment she finds she’s been betrayed by her local contact and has to go into hiding until she can find another way out.

Oh my God, you should have seen us in ’55, ’56, ’62,’ he said, sighing. ‘Every year, another old man shouting from a grandstand with all his medals on. “I’ve come to replace your previous old man.” Some people would go to jail, everyone else would get used to it, and then it would start all over

There’s a long set up in this novel, but the character of Vera carries it off with her whip smart intellect, dry humour and keen observations of the times. I really enjoyed the insights into the New York queer scene in the early 60’s when being queer was illegal, and the history of Argentina. There is a correlation between being gay when it’s illegal and a spy running through the novel – the coded language and pretending to be someone you are not.

Vera is a relatable character and if you like women driven, realistic spy stories with a strong plot – this book could be for you. Even better, there are two more Vera Kelly novels to devour – Vera Kelly is not a Mystery (2020) and Vera Kelly Lost and Found (2022)

I woke with an ache in my chest and heard the subsiding whistle of a teakettle in the kitchen. I read the spines of the paperbacks on the night table: Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith. Novels about liars. I needed to call Gerry.