Vera Kelly is back, baby! Rosalie Knecht returns with the third installment in the Vera Kelly queer noir series, Vera Kelly: Lost and Found. Set in the spring of 1971, it’s the first book in the series to take place in post-Stonewall. And while Vera’s private life and spy life (or, now, private detective life since she’s officially done with the CIA) have always mixed and mingled, this time the case is intensely personal. In a classic trip-to-meet-the-girlfriend’s-parents-gone-wrong tale, Vera’s girlfriend Max disappears shortly after they arrive at her family’s Los Angeles estate. Hollywood strangeness, an undercover stint at a questionable sanatorium, a car chase through the streets of LA, and other hijinks ensue. But the real fuel of the narrative is the romance between Vera and Max, the ways they fight to survive together in a hostile world, their families often their most pressing enemies.
First, some practical information. I’m often asked when it comes to series of books if it’s essential to read them in order or to read all of them. I do think that all three books are worthy of being read (though my official rankings, if you’re curious, go book two, book three, book one). But I don’t think you have to read them in order. In a fashion reminiscent of throwback hardboiled book series, Knecht writes these Vera Kelly books so that they can be enjoyed both as standalones and also as interconnected narratives. She does some exposition work to recap critical moments from Vera’s past that happen or are touched on in previous books. An altercation with Vera’s mother has been a pivotal part of Vera’s emotional arc, sense of self, and relationship with her queerness throughout the series, and it factors significantly into this third book, which contends so much with issues of family. You get just enough of a recap of that pivotal moment in this book to understand the stakes and impact, but if you want the fuller story, you’ll have to go back to book two, Very Kelly Is Not a Mystery, which uses flashback more significantly as a device in its structure. This exposition work Knecht does is never clunky, these flashbacks to the previous books woven into the narrative organically and in a way that highlights just how solid worldbuilding of this series is.
Knecht also weaves queer history into the narrative in a way that doesn’t just feel organic but actually personal. In the first chapter, as Vera brings the reader up to speed on her life with Max in Brooklyn — which is quite the blissful portrait of dyke domestic bliss aside from the restrictions on them to live freely beyond the confines of their home and also their financial troubles, which are, of course, tied to the restrictions on them to live freely beyond the confines of their home — she recalls a gay couple she knows that were actually married on the steps of city hall in New York by a pastor from the Church of the Beloved Disciple before then being detained. The anecdote led me on a research spiral to an archived New York Times story from 1971 on the real Church of the Beloved Disciple, a mostly queer congregation that provided services at the Church of the Holy Apostles, an important site in New York City’s queer history, in the 1970s. I love a book that inspires a deep dive on LGBTQ history, especially when that historical context is woven into the text of a fast-paced fictional narrative. Vera Kelly might not be a real person, but she holds many real historical, political, and social contexts at the core of her narrative.
That first chapter of the book is one of my favorites. It’s much more languid than the rest of the novel, which by necessity clips along at a rapid pace to serve the urgency of the mystery. We get a long and loving glimpse into the private lives of Vera and Max, who have built a queer chosen family of friends against the backdrop of post-Stonewall NYC. Max works at a bar, Vera’s private investigator work providing most of the financial contribution to their relationship. They have a house together, but it’s in constant need of repairs. Max throws parties full of lesbians, potato soup with loaves of bread, Sara Lee cakes on porcelain cake stands, and cigarettes. They live on a tight budget, but they live well, surrounded by friends and building a tight-knit queer community that supports each other. In her spare time, Max is writing an opera. Vera longs to buy her a proper piano.
They care about each other very much, but there are also problems in their relationship, too, both of them withholding parts of themselves and their pasts, likely in an attempt to not burden one another about their baggage. Their money issues are slightly complicated by the fact that Max actually grew up very, very rich. She doesn’t have access to that wealth since she’s queer and disowned, but there’s a marked difference between Vera and Max’s relationships with money that’s rooted in the ways they grew up. The dyke domesticity of the first chapter is interrupted ominously when Max announces she has received a letter from her sister. Everything starts to go wrong, just a slight left turn at first and then sharply off a cliff.
Trouble has befallen the Comstock family, Max’s family of origin that has been no real family to her for quite some time. Her father, a cartoonish villain of a man named Aloysius, has left her mother in typical rich old patriarch fashion, taking up with a very young new girlfriend and getting involved with a nefarious character named St. James who is clearly using Aloysius for his money. Max has a younger sister named Inez who seems at least tacitly supportive of her queerness and Max and Vera’s only semblance of an ally when they descend upon the dazzling Comstock estate that seems like something straight out of a movie. Max comes from even more money Vera realized, but over the course of the novel, both start to understand more about one another and how their upbringings impact their choices and viewpoints now. Max may have had a charmed childhood on the surface, but her father is cruel to every woman in his life, and especially to her. And when she broke off from her life and started over in New York, finally able to live freely (well, not completely freely given the time period, but relative to before), she had no life skills, no clue how to manage money and build a life for herself. Of course, Max and Vera should’ve talked about all this before they ended up in the emergency situation they face out West, but alas, even in the best of relationships, conversations about money and about family are difficult.
Meeting the Comstocks goes worse than Vera even anticipated, and then Max disappears. They’ve been having so many communication issues lately that at first Vera thinks perhaps Max just went off in a huff to blow off some steam. But it quickly becomes clear that something more dangerous has occurred when no one else seems concerned with Max’s vanishing act and Vera starts to feel even more unwanted on the Comstock grounds than before.
Vera then embarks on a wild chase through the hills of Southern California in search of her missing girlfriend. She puts her detective skills to the test but also is helped along the way by others, from strangers to her dear friend and fellow queer, Nick. Vera’s a compelling and capable leading star for this series, but I love that Knecht doesn’t turn her into just a dyke version of some of literature’s great detectives who get lucky every time and outsmart everyone around them in a way that feels condescending to the people around them. She’s smart and good at what she does. But when Vera gets lucky, it’s usually because a stranger decides to offer some unexpected kindness. And when Vera outsmarts those around her, it’s because they’ve underestimated her based on gendered assumptions.
The third book contains Vera Kelly’s queerest mystery yet, Max’s disappearance directly connected to her father’s homophobia and attempts to silence her. But even more propulsive than the mystery itself is the romance baked into Vera Kelly: Lost and Found. The final beats of the novel, like the beginning, slow things down and provide an intimate look at queer life for Vera and Max in 1971. The action that makes up the middle of the novel is fun and zippy, imbued with layers of character work and Knecht’s sparkling prose. But it’s in these quieter, more internal moments that Very Kelly: Lost and Found does its most thrilling work. Gay history and bar culture, queer romance, P.I. intrigue, the occult, and 1970s Hollywood are all in the mix in the latest Vera Kelly installment, Knecht proving for the third time over her knack for bending and blending genres.