A puzzling spy story set in Argentina in the time of the generals

Who Is Vera Kelly?

At the outset of this puzzling spy story, we meet a teenage girl named Vera who may or may not have accidentally attempted suicide. It’s October 1957. Vera lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her mother. The two do not get along. At all.


Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht (2018) 272 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


Soon, we’re introduced to a young woman named Anne. It’s eight years later: January 1966. She’s working in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the CIA. Anne is a surveillance specialist who has been charged with bugging senior officials in the Argentine government.

Are these two women the same person? Can we assume that Anne is an undercover name, and that she is really Vera Kelly? We won’t know for awhile. Meanwhile, we follow the lives of the troubled teenager in Maryland and the CIA agent in Argentina as months pass by in each of their lives.

A puzzling spy story set in Argentina

Whatever her identity, why has Anne been sent to Argentina? To understand that, we need to know a little about Argentine history in that period. The background is only hinted at in the novel. A military coup in 1962 had overthrown a democratically elected government, which was replaced by civilian officials appointed by the generals. But in 1966 the soldiers are going to seize power for themselves, tossing out the civilians. A rigidly conservative general named Juan Carlos Onganía will become dictator, ushering in an era of repression that will last on and off for nearly two decades. Anne’s assignment in Argentina is to learn whether and when General Onganía will mount his coup.

During that period, when the generals dominated Argentine life, a curious issue rose to the top of the country’s foreign policy agenda: the centuries-long British occupation of the Falkland Islands. To this day, Argentina claims the islands as its own, calling them the Islas Malvinas. Argentine fury over the role of the British there led a later Argentine military government to take on the British Navy in a naive attempt to seize the islands. Britain may be a second-class power globally, but the Argentines were no match for the UK’s still-formidable navy. The invasion did not end well for Argentina.

This is the historical context in which Rosalie Knecht’s novel, Who Is Vera Kelly?, is set. In other words, this is not a run-of-the-mill spy story. It’s an especially puzzling spy story—an unusual tale, very well-told.

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