Mystery and suspense tales often begin with a knockout opening — a murder, a chase scene or a fateful knock at the detective’s door. (Think of all those distraught clients who’ve turned up at 221B Baker Street seeking Sherlock Holmes’s help or the parade of femme fatales who’ve slinked into the offices of Spade, Marlowe, and Co.) Sometimes, though, a suspense tale takes longer to get going and, so, in this Age of Distraction, runs the risk of losing readers.
Rosalie Knecht runs just that risk in her unusual novel, "Who Is Vera Kelly?” Part espionage tale, part coming of age/coming out novel, Knecht’s narrative requires a lot of setup, which gives the first half of her story a cumbersome stop-and-start rhythm. Readers who have the patience to stick with it, however, will find themselves rewarded with an off-road tale of political intrigue and youthful naivete.
Vera Kelly introduces herself to us in flashbacks about growing up that are scattered within a spy story. In the first flashback — to the fall of 1957 — the teenage Vera, who lives with her mother in Chevy Chase, Md., has just come home from the hospital. Vera overdosed on pills she found in her mother’s handbag; she was in a deep funk because her best friend, Joanne, had been abruptly transferred to a Catholic girl’s high school. It turns out that even before Vera herself could acknowledge “the love that dare not speak its name,” Joanne’s mother had become suspicious of the intensity of Vera’s friendship with her daughter.
This lesbian bildungsroman alternates with the larger tale of James Bond derring-do set in 1966 in Buenos Aires, where a grown-up Vera is spying for the CIA. A military coup in the works will put Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania in power. Vera, posing as a foreign student at the university, deploys an array of listening devices to eavesdrop on her fellow students, particularly those suspected of Communist sympathies. This is a strange gig for a young woman like Vera whose own politics are Kennedy-era progressive and whose sexuality, were it to become known to the CIA, would land her on a blacklist.
As imagined by Knecht, however, Vera’s situation is plausible. After her mother had Vera legally declared “incorrigible,” she spent some time in a juvenile detention facility and eventually made her way to New York City. There, Vera was on her own, working at typist jobs, living in crummy boardinghouses and awkwardly testing out the underground dating scene in lesbian bars like “The Bracken.” An accidental job at a radio station gives Vera the technical skills that catch the attention of CIA recruiters.
Vera’s queer spin on coming-of-age in “Happy Days” America is interesting, but “Who Is Vera Kelly?” really transforms into taut suspense mode after the coup takes place and Vera is left to fend for herself amid the chaos of the new dictatorship, when all foreigners are suspect.
Here’s how Vera, earlier in the story, accounts for her steady nerves: “I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway. Back home, I had known that if I were arrested at a dyke bar I would lose my job, and if I lost my job I would end up in a flophouse or worse. I went out anyway, because living was a dry waste if I didn’t. . . . For a long time already, I had been half a step from the edge of a cliff. That was how I lived. I did not look over.”
The pacing of “Who Is Vera Kelly?” is uneven, but it ends up being a pretty satisfying adventure romp. Given the current popularity of “women-in-trouble” psychological suspense tales, where much of the action takes place in the heroine’s anxious mind, it’s refreshing to read a novel where a capable young woman not only knows how to fix an electrical short in a transformer, but also how to maneuver around the homophobic biases of her own era.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program, “Fresh Air.”