Velvet was the Night
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Expected publication date: August 17, 2021 by Del Rey
In 1970s Mexico City, political unrest bubbled beneath the surface of everyday life, and sometime boiled over in the form of protests, riots, and violence. In the midst of this, El Elvis is part of a gang seeking to quell leftist protesters. He hates violence and he loves rock ‘n roll and old movies. His life has been strange, and though he wants to rise even higher in his shadowy mentor’s favor, part of him yearns for something like a normal life. Maite, meanwhile, is newly-minted thirty-year old woman trapped in a dead end office job. She yearns for excitement in her life, or at least a boyfriend who will make her feel beautiful and wanted. But her own apathy gets in the way of her advancement, and so she loses herself in romance stories and rock ‘n roll music. When Maite’s beautiful neighbor, the artistic Leonora, asks Maite to look after her cat for the weekend, Maite agrees for the sake of the money Leonora offers. But after Leonora disappears without a trace, Maite ends up in the midst of an investigation that brings her into a world of artists, dissidents, spies, and the secret police. Elvis, meanwhile, is also looking for Leonora– or the photographs she took at a protest– but after encountering Maite and her taste in music, he slowly grows more intrigued by this ordinary woman wrapped up in extraordinary events. With gangs, spies, and the secret police slowly tightening the noose around their lives, Maite and Elvis must find a way out before their worlds explode.
With every new novel, Silvia Moreno-Garcia explores a new subgenre. In The Beautiful Ones, was a fantastical comedy of manners; Certain Dark Things told a vampire story set in modern Mexico City; in 2020’s Mexican Gothic, Moreno-Garcia delved into the eerie world of Gothic horror. In Velvet was the Night she takes on noir fiction to a somewhat mixed effect, putting the reader in the midst of political turmoil in 1970s Mexico, with a right-wing president actively suppressing leftist demonstrations, political factions, and student groups with the aide of organized street gangs, CIA operatives, and his own secret police. So far, so noir. But Moreno-Garcia tells her story through the eyes of two young people, Elvis and Maite, whose lives until now have had little to do with politics. Neither of them imagines being heroes or martyrs for a cause. They just want to listen to their music and dream their rock ‘n roll dreams. Maite, especially, is an ordinary person. She’s just turned thirty, hates her job, is sick of her mother’s nagging, and is short of the cash that will allow her to get her car back from the mechanic. When intrigue comes her way, she doesn’t end up in the middle of it because she thinks it’s glamorous- she wants the money her missing neighbor Leonora owes her. Maite is almost an ‘everyman’, though not as likeable as that quintessential archetype. She half-heartedly takes action to improve her life, then abandons that to read the latest issue of her favorite romantic comic. She’s a petty thief who steals trinkets from her neighbors. She is a complete foil for the artists and revolutionaries she ends up with, who are willing to risk life and limb for a cause.
While some readers might condemn Maite for being apathetic, she’s not so different from real people. How many of us spend the weekends complaining about work, talk about going off on some adventure or looking for a new job, and then head back to our usual lives on Monday morning? Maite’s response to her situation is just what a “normal” person’s reaction would be- to imagine herself walking into a romantic and adventurous situation, only to find that the reality is far dirtier and not nearly as romantic as her daydreams.
For Elvis’s part, in spite of his unusual life, his true dream is far more ordinary, as one might expect for someone who has lived on the fringes of society and imagines that spending a Saturday night at a cafe listening to good music with a pretty girl might be the best thing ever.
In Velvet was the Night, neither of the main characters are heroes. But after all, noir isn’t a genre of bright shiny heroes. Elvis and Maite are plunged into dramatic- even melodramatic- circumstances. There is darkness all around, and while neither of them are dark people, they’re not beacons of goodness, either. Noir is a genre that deals with the dark, and its characters are, to a one, morally ambiguous. There are no easy answers, and there is no certainty. And while there are answers for Elvis and Maite, they are as likely to disappear into the night as shadows are.
Thank you to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.