After reading the last line of Rosalie Knecht’s new book, I shouted “God dammit” to no one and threw the book across the couch.
(I have thrown exactly one other book in my life, and that was Mrs. Dalloway. I only throw a book when it makes me Feel All The Things.)
Everyone’s favorite lesbian spy returns in Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery, the second installment of Knecht’s page-turning series. We find our Vera in 1967 in New York City, a year after her harrowing escape from Argentina, in a totally different kind of pickle: she’s been dumped by her girlfriend and fired, all in one day. While she falls back on old tricks to pay the bills and lands, yet again, in some seriously hot water, it’s the more tender matter of navigating heartbreak and healing that seems hardest for her to crack.
If you loved all the action of Who Is Vera Kelly?, Knecht does not disappoint in this sequel. What starts out as a simple missing-person case quickly explodes in complexity and danger as Vera wades once again into the world of geopolitical unrest, where nothing is as it seems. Her dogged pursuit of the truth takes her all the way to the Dominican Republic this time, during an age of CIA-backed dictators and coups and wealthy families on the run from persecution. All of this pays off in the page-turning intrigue and cliffhangers you hope for in a good spy novel, with the beautiful backdrop of Santo Domingo and its environs brought blazingly to life.
But Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery is so much more than your average spy novel. Knecht brings history to life with rich, well-researched details of a time when so much of the world was on the precipice of upheaval. Through Vera, we get flashes of what’s to come: the hippies overtaking the Haight-Ashbury, the horrors ramping up in Vietnam, police raids on gay bars in the years before Stonewall. It’s almost a comfort to read this book in 2020: to understand that this moment, right now, is hardly the first time humans have visited utter chaos upon ourselves, and that perhaps the revolution we need is around the next corner.
There’s another kind of revolution happening within Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery, and that’s where Knecht really blows the doors off the noir genre. For the first time, we see Vera struggle to be vulnerable: a concept that is foreign to a lone wolf who has watched her own back for so long. But loneliness has caught up to her, and she’s starting to feel it. (“It’s a sad idea, to never come unstuck from yourself.”) She’s no longer an island, and she must learn to rely on others for more than just the next lead in a case.
As she wades into this new emotional world, she has to grapple with and try to unlearn instincts that once kept her safe but no longer serve her, with the help of some charming, insistent, and forgiving new friends. It is in these smaller moments that Vera’s bravery hits a new level. When the Dominican police force is on your tail, the only thing she can do is keep driving. But in each instance of human intimacy, she must make a choice: to change, or stay the same. What will she do?
Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery is the perfect sequel, because it’s even better than the first book. How often does that happen? The narrative is deeper and richer, with so much more heart. There’s also a lot more context about Vera and how her own history—her family, her trauma—colors her relationships and motivations. On top of all of this, a theme of exile weaves its way through the book. It ties together Vera’s past, the subjects of her search, and the queers of New York, many of whom seek refuge in the city after being “thrown away,” as one character puts it. In the end, the message seems to be: we can’t go back, but we’ve found each other, so let’s build something new together, even if it’s hard.
Reader, you will love this one. Don’t walk. Run.
P.S. Sound off in the comments: Who should play Vera in the movies? (Because there HAVE to be movies.)