One thing the spy novel seems to lack is strong female heroines. There are plenty of damsels in distress and even a decent handful of female sidekicks but rarely do suspenseful espionage tales feature women actually doing the high-stakes work. Rosalie Knecht‘s second novel Who is Vera Kelly? is the exception.
We get to know our CIA agent protagonist Vera Kelly through flashbacks to her childhood, beginning with her teenage overdose in 1957. Despairing over the loss of her best friend (and first love), Joanne, to a Catholic school, Vera takes a handful of pills from her mother’s purse, spends a couple of days in the hospital and is taken home by the housekeeper. These tales of an unhappy household and young lesbian seeking to find her place in 1950’s America are mixed amongst the larger story of Vera’s post in 1966 Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Argentina, 1966. The country is on the brink of a military coup, which makes it a dangerous place to be spending time, especially as a foreigner. Vera is given the even more perilous task of uncovering and uprooting a possible KGB infiltration. Discovered working at a local radio station, Vera’s technical skills are a perfect match for the job, but there looms a larger question of whether she personally has what it takes to make it as a spy. Knecht’s latest plays with the fact that Vera has long been living a double, double life — both as a closeted lesbian and an undercover agent — in a fun way. But still, readers will be left in limbo until the final page, wondering whether or not the cloak and dagger act Vera’s been pulling off in her personal life will have given her enough practice to make it out of Argentina alive.
The story gets particularly suspenseful when it becomes clear Vera won’t be making it out of Argentina as easily as she thought. With the border closed to foreigners and a handler who’s vanished into thin air, Vera is left to her own devices and forced to quickly concoct a plan to get herself back on American soil. There’s a gun, and a plane heist, and an internationally photographed protest that threatens to expose Vera’s identity as a CIA agent. A singular moment comes near the end of the story when all of Vera’s past (the sneakiness she’s learned by dabbling in illicit and illegal NYC lesbian bars) and all of her present (the brief CIA training she gets around the midpoint of the novel) come together, and she proves once and for all that life has given her what it takes to be a success. But will she stay the course or trade her thrilling life for something new?
Overall, Who is Vera Kelly? is a delightful read. It’s fun and suspenseful. Vera often feels like a female James Bond in the absolute best way. This book’s only set back is its pacing; it felt a bit off and in some cases, the transition between past and present perspective slowed the story down too much and might even throw the reader out of its magic. For instance, the first dozen chapters or so don’t allow the reader to get a handle on either who Vera Kelly is or what on earth she’s doing in Argentina. The switchbacks between young Vera’s overdose and her visits to Nico’s apartment don’t give the reader any set up to go off of, and they often end up feeling a bit frustrating. If you stick with Vera through the first 130 or so pages, you’ll be rewarded with a nail-biting page-turner, with a heroine you can actually root for. The book lends itself well to a possible sequel or series, and we hope to be seeing more of Ms. Kelly soon.