Velvet Was the Night

I think I’m officially a Silvia Moreno-Garcia fan. I’ve read, and loved, three of her books: Gods of Jade and Shadow in 2019, Mexican Gothic in 2020, and just a few weeks ago, a reprint of The Beautiful Ones. Two months ago, her newest book, Velvet Was the Night, came out. A noir thriller set in 1970s Mexico City, it felt like a great read for early October: It works for both Latinx Heritage Month and spooky season.

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
AudienceAdult
GenreNoir; Thriller; Historical Fiction
SettingMexico City, Mexico
Number of Pages285
Format I ReadHardcover
Original Publication DateAugust 17, 2021

Official Summary

From the New York Times bestselling author of Mexican Gothic comes a “delicious, twisted treat for lovers of noir” about a daydreaming secretary, a lonesome enforcer, and the mystery of a missing woman they’re both desperate to find.

1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.

Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.

Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.

Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.

Velvet Was the Night is an edgy, simmering historical novel for lovers of smoky noirs and anti-heroes.

Review

Velvet Was the Night has been high on my must-read list since I first heard about several months ago. By now I trust Silvia Moreno-Garcia, regardless of the genre or setting. This is the first noir thriller I’ve ever read, although I have seen a few noir films. That said, I had only a vague idea of how this novel would feel and play out. As it turns out, I thoroughly enjoyed it; no surprise, as this author never disappoints!

It’s June 1971 in Mexico City when we meet our main characters. Elvis, as he’s known, is part of the Hawks, a group of mostly young men who work adjacent to Mexico’s DFS (Dirección Federal de Seguridad, an intelligence agency and secret police). He takes orders from El Mago in their efforts to suppress communism in Mexico. Meanwhile, Maite is a 30-year-old secretary at a law firm, but her mind is more consumed by dreams of love and the stories she absorbs from comics. Both end up on a similar hunt when Leonora – Maite’s neighbor – goes missing. Whereas Maite just wants Leonora to take her cat back, Elvis is working out the politically charged mess Leonora is in.

Despite how different they are, I really enjoyed both characters. Maite, in particular, I felt I could relate to on some levels. Not all: I happen to love cats and am not a kleptomaniac. But I could understand her dissatisfaction with her career and her desire for more, even as fear and inertia prevent her from pursuing new opportunities. I can also identify with how she lives vicariously through the characters in her stories or through the words sung in the records she buys. Maite is very much living in a dreamland, a bit of an escape from her less-than-stellar real life. Even her mom and sister don’t seem to care much about her, and Maite is constantly short on money. I felt bad for her, even as I saw the mistakes she was making.

Elvis is much more action-oriented than Maite. He’s had a rough life, but he continues to push himself forward. He went from selling stolen books on the street to being recruited to the Hawks, and although it’s certainly no dream job, at least it’s something. Elvis works hard, and I admire how he learns a new word each day. However, he, like Maite, loves music and entertains some fantasies related to that. No need to guess who his favorite artist is: He got the name Elvis from somewhere!

Maite stumbles into the mystery of finding Leonora simply so she can get rid the cat she’s been babysitting. She ends up tracking down several of the people in Leonora’s life: her sister, her ex-boyfriend, some people at the art collective she frequents. With the help of Leonora’s ex, Rubén, Maite becomes part of an unconventional sleuth duo. Maite’s motives are fairly selfish, and she doesn’t take the whole thing seriously until a DFS agent talks to her. But she’s certainly not prepared for the danger she’s going to get herself into, instead imagining love and happily-ever-afters with the people she meets.

Meanwhile, Elvis is consciously on the hunt for Leonora. With his fellow Hawks, El Güero and The Antelope, they track Maite’s every move, search for clues of their own, and zero in on what exactly Leonora knows and where she went. Theirs is a more rough and intentional search than whatever Maite’s up to. It feels more like an action movie, with some bad encounters with others who are also searching for the missing woman or hiding information about her.

Beyond all that, there are two themes that stand out in Velvet Was the Night. First is how political it is. As the author explains in the note at the back, this novel is based on real events and true political unrest that was in Mexico in the early 1970s. There was dissent between left-leaning, politically active college students and the anti-communist parties in power, including the secret police they used to control the people. This novel explores these themes and explains them well, but I imagine that having more background knowledge about all of this would only add to what happens in Velvet Was the Night.

Another thing I quite enjoyed is how musical this novel is. Both Elvis and Maite are obsessed with music, specifically English-language songs and albums from the United States – not the Spanish-language covers more readily available in Mexico. They’re each constantly playing songs that capture a mood, providing a sort of soundtrack for the book in the same way a film adaptation might include music to inform a scene. The music adds a lot to the book, solidifying the setting and the time and helping to further flesh out the main characters. The author helpfully includes a playlist at the back of the book; check it out below:

There are some big revelations by the end of the novel, and I’m proud to say I saw at least one of them coming. Not everyone does, but personally, I like being able to guess some twists every now and then. The ending is action-packed and exciting, and then the epilogue is a calm reflection with some hints of something new on the horizon. Velvet Was the Night is a smokey, velvety novel, but it’s also one that I found fun and thrilling.

Final Thoughts

Velvet Was the Night is as gripping as I’d hoped it would be, and if this is what noir thrillers are like, I want more. Silvia Moreno-Garcia seems to excel at every genre she tackles, and although she tends not to repeat herself, she does have at least one other noir novel: Untamed Shore, which was first published in early 2020. That one is now high on my list of books to obtain and read. I’ve also just purchased her reprinting of Certain Dark Things, and I’m hoping Signal to Noise will be made available, too. Next year, she’s releasing another new one, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. I’m looking forward to reading them all!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

About the Author

Credit: Martin Dee

Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, including Gods of Jade and Shadow (Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, Ignyte Award), Mexican Gothic (Locus Award, Pacific Northwest Book Award, Goodreads Award), and others.

She has edited several anthologies, including She Walks in Shadows (World Fantasy Award winner, published in the USA as Cthulhu’s Daughters). Silvia is the publisher of Innsmouth Free Press. She co-edited the horror magazine The Dark with Sean Wallace from 2017 to 2020. She’s a columnist for The Washington Post.

She has an MA in Science and Technology Studies from the University of British Columbia. Her thesis can be read online and is titled “Magna Mater: Women and Eugenic Thought in the Work of H.P. Lovecraft.” She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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