By Ally Muterspaw
Cold War spy stories infrequently center on a woman protagonist, let alone a bisexual woman. In spy novels, the protagonist’s intimate memories are rarely a critical plot driver. Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? is a unique exception to the typical story arc. Knecht begins her novel in 1957 Maryland, where a teenage Vera overdoses on pills and has pent-up love for her friend Joanne. Vera lives with her abusive single mother and feels little support at home. After leaving Maryland, Vera moves to New York City and grapples with her queerness while exploring the Greenwich Village bar scene. Knecht’s novel’s viewpoint alternates between Vera during her young adulthood and adult Vera on an espionage job in 1966 Buenos Aires.
In her past and present, Vera Kelly has no role models. She has no stable support system through blood relations or chosen family and experiences continuous displacement. Vera’s lack of intimate connections and her professional skills cause her to be a targeted recruit for the CIA. Vera is caught in a bind: she, like many single queer women in the 1960s, is financially insecure and is coerced into subtly navigating her personal life. Knecht reflects on the parallels of living an underground life and the secrecy needed to do espionage work. Vera’s coming-out arc and personal life are central to her character but are not a tragic focal point. Her queerness is one layer of the vulnerable life she lives and this is a rare story where female sexuality isn’t fetishized in the espionage canon. Who Is Vera Kelly? is a character driven novel that is exciting for both regular and infrequent readers of the genre and is a refreshing take on a typically masculine story.
Ally Muterspaw, she/her, is a librarian living with her roommate and their cats in Indianapolis. She is currently on a crossword puzzle kick and has been watching teen dramas. She is a member of Queery, a radical queer book club run through Irvington Vinyl and Books in Indianapolis.