I nearly passed on WHO IS VERA KELLY?, a new novel by Rosalie Knecht. It has a dull title, a cartoon cover, clumsy hand lettering (all the rage these days, alas), and an uninviting page design. The reviews were good, however, and since it was a library book, I didn’t have a big investment.
The quality of the prose immediately struck me–clean, vivid, unobtrusive. It took me a while longer to decide that I was willing to hang with the first-person narrator, who seemed at first to be cold and carelessly self-destructive. That initial impression proved false, however, and I was soon hooked. VERA KELLY is, for the most part, a spy story set in Buenos Aires in 1966. The protagonist is a CIA operative investigating KGB activity at the Universidad Central. Refreshingly, the tool of her trade is not seduction, but her skill with electronics. Longer sections set in 1966 alternate with flashbacks that eventually tell us how she got there.
First of all, let me say that the Buenos Aires sections were utterly convincing. Knecht obviously knows not just the geography of the city, but also its history and its heart. I’ve done a lot of the same research, and I never heard her hit a wrong note. The spy story component is also completely satisfying–the carefully laid plans collapsing, the deceptions, the narrow escapes. What elevates the story is the philosophical concerns at its center. The book is about how one betrayal leads to another, the personal to the political to the global. By the time the last piece of Vera’s past snapped into place and her own fate was resolved, I was deeply moved.
They say that SF is metaphor made literal, but the best espionage fiction does the same thing. WHO IS VERA KELLY? is a great spy story, and a great novel, period.