Who is Vera Kelly?

Student, activist…spy? Who is Vera Kelly? is a spy novel by Rosalie Knecht published earlier this week by Tin House Books. It’s also a question I asked myself many times while reading this engrossing novel of intrigue and identity. What Vera Kelly is not is your typical school girl, and she’s definitely not your typical spy.

1966 is a dangerous time to be living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For those of you who may have forgotten your world history, events in the summer of 1966 sparked the Argentine Revolution that overthrew the government and began a long period of dictatorship. Up until 1966 Vera was supplementing her low-wage radio station job doing occasional weekend surveillance jobs for the CIA, but the Buenos Aires job would be quite different. I’ll let Vera explain herself:

My handler pitched it to me in January 1966, in a diner where he liked to meet on East Fifty-Second Street. The Argentine president was weak, there could be a coup anytime, and KGB activity had picked up in Buenos Aires. I would have to do infiltration work as well as surveillance. I would be gone indefinitely, months or a year, and I would have to quit my job. For this they would pay me thirty-five thousand dollars.

You math nerds and currency freaks will realize how much thirty-five thousand dollars was in 1966, but I’ll spell it out so the rest of us can understand. According to one inflation calculator I consulted, that would be over $270,000 in today’s dollars. For someone scraping by at $38/per week at her day job (about $259 in today’s dollars) it was kind of a no-brainer financially for Vera to accept the job.

But even more than the money, Vera has found a sense of accomplishment in her work with the CIA. The satisfaction of a job well done in service to her country is what helps make the rest of her lonely existence worth getting up for every morning. I say lonely because Vera is a closeted lesbian and in the 1960s it wasn’t impossible to find female companionship in New York City, but doing so could possibly jeopardize her security clearance. This is a sad way of telling you that Vera suppressed a lot of her identity in service to her country, but she wasn’t always so noble.

The chapters alternate between Vera’s present-day espionage and her formative years growing up in Chevy Chase, MD. Vera’s battles with undiagnosed depression eventually led to a suicide attempt. This is revealed in the very first paragraphs of the book (you’ll get no spoilers from me, but do consider this a trigger warning for a suicide attempt right at the top of the story). Vera’s recovery shut her off even more from a world that didn’t understand her, and would eventually lead to heartbreak and a brush with the law. That sounds very depressing, and it is! But it does steer her down a winding path to the CIA and her life of adventure.

Vera spends much of her time surrounded by other people, and though it’s the nature of the job as a spy to lie to people and not trust what she’s told in return, Vera is essentially a woman alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re a spy and it’s even harder to find romance or even simple physical companionship when you don’t fit into society’s prescribed heteronormative expectations and ideals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more of a taste of the espionage portion of the plot because if this book’s plot were a pepperoni pizza, the spy parts are the cheese and the character development is the pepperoni. It’s got a good sprinkling of character development, but every bite is covered in the cheese of espionage.

The best books make me scattered in my retellings. Just take my awkward pizza metaphor as the gold star this book deserves!

Once the coup in Argentina begins, Vera’s plans go up in smoke and she’s forced to improvise in order to escape the police state and survive. This is where Vera surprises both the reader and herself as she depends entirely on her instincts and cunning to get herself home.

There are secrets, betrayals, weapons, and kisses. This is a book that really does have it all.

I’m not usually a fan of character-driven literature, but apparently if you throw in an engrossing spy plot and some witty dialogue I will fall at your feet in worship. My girl Amy Stewart blurbed this book as “The twisty, literary, woman-driven spy novel you’ve always wanted to read. Dazzling.” And of course she’s right. Vera Kelly is 100% the spy I’ve always wanted. Thank you, Rosalie Knecht, for bringing her into my life.

Now please, please, PLEASE tell me this will be a series?! Because like all great literary characters, after meeting Vera Kelly I’m not ready to say goodbye.

Spies Like Them

It’s a new year, time for a clean start and all of that. 2014 was my year of the hard-boiled detective. And so I wonder what 2015 will bring.

One book I’m currently reading is The Saint and The Fiction Makers by Leslie Charteris. The Saint is a spy, sort of in the mold of James Bond, excepting that he predates Bond by some decades, which would actually make Bond a spy in the mold of The Saint. At any rate, Charteris introduced Simon Templar, also known as The Saint, in 1928 and thereafter wrote a series of books featuring his indestructible hero. In the 1960s a TV show based on the character (starring a soon-to-be-Bond Roger Moore) ran, and a variety of authors novelized some of the teleplays. Altogether there are nearly 100 books featuring this dynamic savior of the free world.

The Saint and The Fiction Makers is difficult to describe without giving a bit of the surprise away. It begins as a typical spy story: Super-villain attempting to kill Heroic Spy with ingenious killing devices, Spy narrowly escaping attempt after attempt, Scantily-Clad-Woman adding sex appeal. As events continue to unfold we discover that Simon Templar is actually watching this spy movie, seated next to the actress who was somewhat clothed in the movie. Thus begins a post-modern romp through the spy genre.

Further into the story, a crazy man takes on the persona of the movie’s super-villain and re-creates his hideout and gadgetry in exquisite detail. Then, thinking that Templar is the author who created this fictional genius, he kidnaps The Saint and his “assistant”, the woman who is the real author. What a convoluted and fantastical plot!

While EPL does not (yet) boast any of The Saint catalogue, we do provide ample opportunities to enter the undercover secret world of spies.

39 StepsThe 39 Steps by John Buchan
This book is an early spy story, written in 1915 and centered on The Great War. An “ordinary” person is caught up in an effort to thwart a plot against the British war machine. Alfred Hitchcock made a classic movie based on this book in 1935.

 

North by NorthwestNorth by Northwest
Speaking of Hitchcock and unwitting heroes, in North by Northwest, one of my favorite movies, Cary Grant becomes a pawn of uncaring government spies who sacrifice him in order to bring their plans to fruition. Oh, and there’s a beautiful woman and people climbing Mt. Rushmore’s presidential faces, as well as human crop dusting, so all bases are covered.

Secret AdversawryThe Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence, two of Christie’s lesser known heroes, first see the light of day in The Secret Adversary (written in 1922), where the pair accidentally become entangled with post-WWI spies who are still looking to rearrange the European balance of power. In their second book, Partners in Crime, our heroes have married and now run a detective agency. So they see both sides of the coin, spy and detective.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade
One topic that has intrigued me since hearing about it in a documentary is the spy ring that George Washington put together during the Revolutionary War. Now I gotta say, when we learned history in high school they left out the good parts like this tidbit. I would’ve been all over a spy ring! These spies were very important to the war effort, and this book is firmly planted on my to-read shelf.

Harriet the SpyHarriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Finally, so as not to leave out the kids, we have Harriet. She is perhaps a different kind of spy, not in the overthrowing nations mold, but rather in spying on her friends and writing down what she observes. Here’s a lesson kids, which is a good one in this day and age of computers, cell phones and abacuses: Don’t write down stuff you don’t want other people to see. Harriet’s notebook falls into the wrong hands and her friends read what she has written about them. It’s then up to Harriet to repair the damage and rebuild her friendships.

Will it be a year of spies? I hate to speculate, but I think I can safely say they will at the very least turn up in my reading every now and again. Perhaps one is sitting next to me at this very moment, looking through the eyeholes cut in that newspaper, poisonous lipstick, bedazzling pouty lips, a sultry dress encasing curves in just the right places … Yes, a year of spies.