JUNE 16, 2020
PERHAPS THE MOST PLEASING feature of Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly diptych — which promises to become a series — is its consciously vintage style. The inaugural book, 2018’s Who Is Vera Kelly?, is a novel that covers the years between 1957 and 1967 that reads as if it might have been written in that same decade, and Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery is made of the same cloth. The new Vera starts a few months after the end of the first volume, in Brooklyn in 1967, in a changed key: the house that Vera had bought in a spell of optimistic nesting is now a financial burden; the Brooklyn College poet whom she’d romanced is leaving her; she is about to get fired from her job in broadcasting. But what returns without fail in the second book is the sedate, unfazed, outward-looking, withholding narration that, in an age of dominance of the psychological novel, I’ve come to crave.
We would have to go back to the past (and to literature in other languages) to find literary characters who are not deeply psychologized, sometimes to the point of transparency. Patricia Highsmith is one stop, and the Vera books bring to mind some of Highsmith’s work’s murkiness, evasion, and freedom. Ripley and other Highsmith protagonists are not open books to themselves and are unknowable to the author too. As readers, we’d perhaps be privy to one of their foundational wounds or shames, but we won’t catch them engaged in analyzing their own emotions. We will infer about their interiority from actions and words, or the absence thereof. Even in her masterpiece novel Edith’s Diary, about a mind disintegrating under a tightening grip of domestic entrapment and outside political chaos, Highsmith steers clear of psychologizing, to great effect.
Such fiction presents us with an open-ended approach: the principal character doesn’t know; I, the author, don’t know (or can pretend well that I don’t); perhaps you, the reader, will. There is air there. There is a kind of taciturn narration that, paradoxically, loosens the interpretive floodgates. The highly prized novels of our time, like Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School or Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, are psychological to the infinitesimal level. A reserved narration engages a different set of readerly muscles. It’s Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, Hugo Wilcken’s The Reflection, it’s Joanna Hogg’s films.
What do we know about Vera? She does get some background story — not a lot of it — in the first book, in which we see her as a rookie operative sent by the CIA to Argentina to report on the current government and leftist students, then abandoned to fend for herself after the military coup of 1966. Vera comes from a well-off middle-class home, but an atypical one. Father died too early, which left Vera at the care of mother, an accomplished professional outside the home and no stranger to violent punishment inside it. “She beat me for bad grades […] for being mouthy and sad and not as tough as she was.” This continued into Vera’s teens. When one night the young woman fought back, took the mother’s car, and drove to her aunt’s, her mother called the police and had her taken to a youth correction center. Vera never went to college. She was off to New York City after high school and took whatever blue-collar jobs she could land. In the second book of Vera, there is very little of the mother, but the two seem to have come to a long-distance truce. Knecht gives the mother a small but key phone conversation with Vera at an important turn in the investigation.
What we would today call traumatic events happen in both books, but there is no embrace of the concept of trauma in the narration, therefore no language of trauma and recovery (and therefore perhaps no debilitating trauma). While the horror and intolerance of homosexual people accompanies her as she moves through life — in fact, the firing at the beginning of the second book was explained to her as perfectly legal due to the “character clause” in her employment contract — Vera lives in an age untouched by academic, journalistic, and activist elaboration of homophobia. There is a kidnapping in the new book, the use of physical violence during interrogation, a car chase, solitary rambles and stakeouts in desolate towns and woods at all hours of day and night. My edition of the first Vera Kelly book has the Book Club Questions in the back, and one of them caught my eye: “Lots of girls grow up reading Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew novels. Why do you think there are so few adult spy novels starring female spies?” Well, yes. For the same reasons that there are few picaresque novels with female protagonists and few female flâneurs and psycho-geographers. Possibility of violence is always lurking for women in public spaces and outdoors, more so than for men, and more specifically to our sex, sexual violence. We tend to be shorter and physically weaker, and judged on appearance. For safety reasons we tend to opt ourselves out of certain spaces and hours of the day. There are feminist thinkers who argue that due to sexual and other violence against women, we are living in a constant low-level trauma — it becomes the air we breathe. (Low-level if we’re lucky.) I think this is a terrible idea to adopt as a guiding principle in life or fiction, while I agree that the possibility of violence is omnipresent. But we need our spies, detectives, our picaresque, our flâneuses, runners, hikers, our astronauts.
Vera is of course not untouched by the situations she finds herself in, but she is not paralyzed. It’s the price of being in business, as it were. Perhaps a protagonist who won’t stay wounded and self-pitying — or, if you want to put it less generously, who doesn’t spend much time on introspection — is a requirement in the detective genre.
It’s not easy imagining what Vera Kelly looks like, because a lot of what we think we know about lesbian cultures pre-gay rights has come through the theorizing — and archaeologizing — of the butch and femme styles, and the alleged transgressiveness of gender performance, so: From concepts developed in the American academe in 1990s and adopted by the queer media and queer art criticism. Thankfully, Vera is pre-queer studies. And while the butch-femme script has certainly been important and is still alive and well and beautiful, there are scores of lesbian lives that don’t come under it. What was Highsmith herself? Susan Sontag? Elizabeth Bishop? Chantal Akerman? Barbara Hammer? One thing we know is that Vera wears the feminine uniform of her era, long hair, likely skirts, sometimes makeup, but doesn’t see it as a problem — and uses it all as a blending-in tool. “[CIA] hire women?” a newly acquired gay male friend in the second book asks Vera, astonished, after she admits to having had a stint with the agency.
“Sometimes. People don’t expect us, so much.”
“They hire queers?”
I laughed. “Of course not.”
The word “queer” appears in the novel and is used by Vera and the gay man a couple of times, and it is the pre-queer studies meaning of queer, the queer that retains its sting, but also the one that the homosexuals who recognize each other are already reclaiming in conversations among themselves.
Unlike many of the lesbian characters created in that decade, Vera does not live with an internalized stigma. What do we have in that era? The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Killing of Sister George (’68), Sybille Bedford’s A Compass Error where lesbianism is used as deceit and manipulation (’68), and Mary McCarthy’s The Group (’63) with the lesbian character absent from the novel until the end, when she returns to the shock, awe, and pity of her former classmates. Could Vera have read The Price of Salt (’52!), or known that Kitty Genovese had lived with her girlfriend the year she was murdered? A bit like Sarah Waters, whose historical novels fill in the well-researched fiction where all we had was dead silence about lesbian lives, Knecht with Vera imagines what lesbian lives of the early 1960s Greenwich Village without the drama of self-hatred might have looked like. Unlike Waters, Knecht draws the curtain over sex and desire. In the new Vera book, Knecht is very subtle about the back-and-forths of a relationship falling apart — Vera and the Brooklyn poet — and the tentative growth of a new one. We do separate in stages, not by a fiat, and often grow attached to new people in fits, starts, and misunderstandings, and Knecht is as truthful as can be on that. There is some prudishness, or let’s say reserve, about desire, however. Who’s bottoming, topping, or switching, who is the more insistent one on which occasion: we are not privy. Women’s bodies are not described in the way a narrator who desires women’s bodies would usually think of them. It’s an absence. While Vera is not exactly the most self-scrutinizing of people, she would certainly — even if only privately, in her own head — possess a vocabulary for her desires.
By now you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t discussed any of the plot in Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery. It can’t be done without spoilers at every turn, but I can give the basics. Vera is a private investigator in this volume, and while not a lot of people trust that a woman can do the job, she gets the odd stakeout assignment from husbands suspecting their wives are cheating. But then an elderly couple from an influential family in the Dominican Republic comes to her office. They have lost contact with their nephew since the boy’s guardian passed away. The family they all come from is known for its opposition to the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo, and to the strongman who came to rule the Dominican Republic after him, Joaquín Balaguer. The boy was transferred to New York City during the American invasion of the island and has lived with his trusted carer ever since. Vera’s clients fear that Balaguer’s people have tracked the teen down, and want her to find him before anybody else does.
Midway through the book, Vera’s search for the boy takes her to the Dominican Republic, where the pace speeds up and intensifies. That’s where she meets the gay journalist from the United States, who’s at first a wary, circumstantial ally, but by the end of the book a friend and a key character. The novel will make you do online searches on recent Dominican history, especially the Trujillo-Balaguer stretch and the role that the American state played in it. In 1962, the leftist Juan Bosch was democratically elected, but he was soon removed by the Dominican military. The United States subsequently invaded the island, fearing the rise of communists, and supervised the election, which was won by Balaguer, a Trujillo loyalist. As in the first book, set in Argentina, the Spanish-speaking Vera finds herself taking a case that has a lot to do with a country where the US hasn’t behaved gloriously — where in fact it supported the right-wing dictators and the military.
Both Vera books join the small but important tradition of spy novels and mysteries — headed by John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold — in which it gradually becomes clear to the protagonist that her side is worse than the other side, and that the means employed have corrupted her side’s noble ends. The Argentine book is more overtly political; the Dominican book less so, but Vera’s former CIA connection and the US presence in the region are always in the background. Where will the next case for Vera come from? The Cold War offers multiple options. Franco’s Spain? Greek military junta? McCarthyism? Guatemala? More importantly, will Vera’s new relationship with the bartender from the Bracken last? I hope we don’t have to wait long to find out.