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Tuesday 20 April 2021

‘Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery’ by Rosalie Knecht

Published by Verve Books,
6 April 2021.
ISBN: 978-0-85731-812-2 (PB)

The place is New York, at least at first. The time is the 1960s. And the protagonist is a former CIA agent doing her best to forge some kind of life outside the intelligence service. There are hints of an operation in Argentina which went wrong and made her question her bosses’ loyalty, and now Vera is out in the cold.

Vera Kelly may not be a mystery, but she is, in turn, an editor for a TV network, a social worker in a home for delinquent boys, and a private detective. Of the three, the last suits her best; not only does it mean she is her own boss with all the freedoms that affords her, it also gives her the opportunity to use some of the skills she acquired in her former life. But this is the 1960s: a time when detective work of any kind was very much a male preserve. Then again, those who exercise that prejudice haven’t reckoned with Vera.

Another feature of the era is a degree of intolerance of certain ways of life. Vera’s sexual preferences are for other women: in 1960s New York something a lot of people find difficult to accept. It would be hardly worth mentioning these days, of course, but as a means of colouring the background for Vera’s story, and giving her a life outside the mystery, it serves a useful purpose.

Our heroine has hardly furnished her office when she is approached by an elderly couple who want her to find their missing great-nephew. The boy’s parents are political refugees from the Dominican Republic, and he has disappeared from the foster home they sent him to as a way of keeping him safe.

What follows is part mystery, part history lesson, part political thriller, with a smidgen of romance thrown in for good measure. The action moves from New York to the Dominican Republic and back again as Vera pursues various lines of enquiry, and through a variety of scenarios including the home for delinquent boys, a raucous night spot and a club frequented by immigrants who prefer not to be too visible.

Vera is very much a loner, albeit not altogether from choice, so other significant characters are thin on the ground. There’s Nick, whose profession is uncertain, but who turns out to be helpful in a crisis. Maxine is a bartender, and the cause of joy and despair. Various Dominican people help and hinder the investigation. Vera’s mother lurks in the background without ever actually appearing. And there’s Felix, the missing boy, who shows both courage and initiative. 

If I were to be asked to sum up this book in two words, those words would be intriguing, and quirky. Vera Kelly herself is both those things, as well as resourceful and unexpectedly vulnerable in matters of the heart. It’s not a book to race through, though once you’re hooked, you’ll want to know how it all pans out. And maybe you’ll want to meet Vera again. Especially if you like your mysteries intriguing and quirky.

Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Rosalie Knecht is a social worker in New York City and was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She is the translator of Cesar Aira's The Seamstress and the Wind and a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow. Her debut novel, Relief Map, was published by Tin House Books in 2016.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them

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