Rosalie Knecht, “Who Is Vera Kelly?” (2018) (read aloud by Elisabeth Rodgers) – This one was a bit disappointing. I didn’t know a ton about it, probably found out about it from an LARB article or something, put it on my wishlist, got a copy for christmas or a birthday. It’s about a CIA lady spy in Buenos Aires in the sixties, the titular Vera Kelly. She’s no femme fatale or Bond Girl, she’s a bisexual woman from a tragic upper middle class family who gets picked up by the Company from the Greenwich Village gay scene. The blurbs didn’t give a super-involved description of what she’s up to in the book, but hey, Cold War Buenos Aires, spy shit, gay lady, sounds novel, let’s give it a try.
I suppose if I were to try to classify this, with my very non-exhaustive knowledge of the spy fiction genre, I would say it’s roughly in a le Carre mold. It’s more about the inner state of the spy and the spy’s interactions with others than it is about action and derring-do. I love all of the John le Carre I’ve read so I’m into the model, but it also seems harder to carry off than what Fleming, Ludlum etc were up to.
Vera is reasonably interesting. You hear a lot about her troubled upbringing. She’s on her own in Buenos Aires, setting up bugs to spy on politicians, students, and so on. She has a handler back up in Langley sending her money and instructions, but no real backup. A coup (a real one, that led to a military government takeover in 1966) comes around, and she’s betrayed by a local contact and has to figure out how to survive. She doesn’t seduce any enemies in the classic sexist spy lady way, but she is able to stay low to the ground by crashing with a hookup.
The big problem is that there is no compelling mystery and no compelling bad guys or side characters. The local who betrays her is just sort of uninteresting, a Peronist heavy. The students she spies on are stereotypes of fiery upper-class radicals of the Latin American stripe, and the hook-up she stays with is a gormless Texan dude (Vera is passionate about loving women, but dabbles with dudes). She has to get out of Buenos Aires. It takes some doing, but she does. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t great, and I was expecting more. Apparently she quits the Company and becomes a private eye in later installments? Maybe I’ll do another “let’s try this disappointing genre series again” election and put that on the ballot. ***