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Contemporary Novels

WHO IS VERA KELLY? by Rosalie Knecht

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.

Categories
Contemporary Novels

THE GHOST IN THE ELECTRIC BLUE SUIT by Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce is not well known in the US, which is a shame. He walked a narrow line between contemporary fantasy and straight mainstream fiction, a twilight zone he shared with the likes of Jonathan Carroll, Lisa Tuttle, and Christopher Priest.

THE GHOST IN THE ELECTRIC BLUE SUIT (published as THE YEAR OF THE LADYBIRD in the UK) proved to be his final novel before his death in 2014, and it’s terrific stuff.

It’s set in a decaying English seaside resort in 1976 and what kicks it off is a young man’s search for the truth about his birth father. The writing is highly visual and vivid, yet clean and unobtrusive. The characters are engrossing and complex, and when the plot kicks in, the suspense is relentless. The novel is unclassifiable–there’s a pinch of the supernatural and a bit of rabble rousing by the National Front; there’s sexual fantasy, psychology, and a Detective Constable in a cheap suit; there’s terror and Englishness and elegy.

Joyce’s compassion for the characters made them surprise me again and again. The book reads quickly but I feel like it’s going to linger in memory for a long time.