Velvet Was the Night
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic was one of my favorite books of 2020, so I was excited to review her latest novel, Velvet Was the Night. This classic noir narrative is a beautifully written snapshot of one of the darkest times in Mexican/American history.
1970s, Mexico City. Maite has a dead-end secretarial job and is barely making ends meet. Her car is in the shop and she is unsure how she can get the funds to repair it when a miracle occurs – her rich neighbor Leonora asks Maite to look after her cat for the weekend. The two women have barely said hello, so Maite will hardly do this from love or friendship – but for money? Maite agrees on the condition Leonora pays a rather exorbitant rate for the service. Leonora, a college student whose family funds her lifestyle, barely blinks at the extravagant sum before concurring and leaving for the weekend.
Feeling the first glimmers of hope she has experienced in months, Maite enters Leonora’s apartment to feet the cat and decides to celebrate her change in fortune by pilfering some small but personal item, something she’s done many times before. These tiny thefts give her a feeling of one upmanship, a chance to believe she has finally gotten the better of someone in a life where she rarely wins at anything. The plastic religious statue with the taped-up bottom that she finally settles on will be a pleasant reminder of this small victory in her mundane existence.
At the end of the weekend, Leonora doesn’t come home. Instead, Leonora calls Maite asking she bring the cat to her. Maite doesn’t want to do this. She would have to carry the cat plus the other items Leonora wants across town on foot and she flatly refuses. Finally, Leonora agrees to yet another large fee and to pay for a taxi, and Maite begrudgingly complies. But when Maite arrives at the agreed upon meeting spot, there is no sign of Leonora. Not only will Maite not be compensated for the cat-sitting or the inconvenient journey, she has to pay for the taxi ride there and back herself. She goes home with the cat, feeling very unhappy with Leonora.
But then a lot of people are unhappy with the missing Leonora, who took something many people are determined to get their hands on. One such person is El Elvis who works for The Hawks under the command of El Mago. His job is to impersonate college students in order to sniff out the liberal communist agenda allegedly being taught at Universities and to squash the political activists among them. El Elvis joined the group out of desperation, and he is anxious to leave this lifestyle. Finding Leonora just might be his ticket out. He’s convinced Maite may be one of the best ways to do that and begins to follow her.
Maite, meanwhile, is determined to get her money and free herself of the cat. She begins to track down every slim lead that might bring her closer to Leonora, questioning that lady’s friends and family for clues as to her whereabouts, unaware that her every move is being watched. As El Elvis and Maite play a dangerous game of cat and mouse, numerous others join the hunt. People begin to die – and as events spiral further and further out of her control, Maite finds herself in a desperate race to find Leonora before both of them wind up dead.
The noir genre involves stories about characters who are cynical, fatalistic, and morally ambiguous, criteria most definitely met by the people in this story, who have been so beaten down by life that their only interest tends to be survival. That is certainly the case for Maite, who longs for sufficient funds to get out of her hardscrabble existence and for someone, anyone, to care about her. Maite lies about having dates and exciting weekends to her only friend to make her life seem more glamorous, and to bring some dignity to her solitary, mundane existence. Maite’s only joys are her books, records and reading Secret Romance, a series of graphic novels that are a cross between telenovelas and Harlequins. As she meets the many men who people Leonora’s existence, Maite yearns for them to see her in the same way they do the fascinating, mysterious young art student.
El Elvis left his impoverished childhood home before finishing his schooling and had been a street thief, barely hanging on to his fragile existence before joining The Hawks. He has used his code name for so long he can barely remember his real one, and he definitely doesn’t want to remember the life he had before. But he isn’t so fond of the life he has now, either. Unlike many of his fellows, he doesn’t take pleasure in roughing people up, making them talk and ruining countless lives for the benefit of governments he doesn’t support or care about. His only pleasure is in his books and his record collection and when he searches Maite’s apartment and discovers she loves the same things, he finds himself fascinated by the shy, plain-looking secretary who seems “a kindred spirit who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.” Following Maite becomes as much about his own interest in her as it is about his desire to find Leonora and use the co-ed as leverage to get out of The Hawks.
Maite and El Elvis serve as our introduction to the Guerra Sucia, the “Dirty War” in which the Mexican government – with help from the CIA – “abducted, tortured, incarcerated and murdered Mexican citizens” for nefarious reasons under the guise of keeping the nation from falling to communism. As a result, the tale is rather violent, and our hero and heroine are rather desperate, driven people. One of the major themes of the story is how little human life is valued in this time and place. Not being an expert in the era myself I can’t speak to the historical accuracy, but the narrative evoked sorrow, horror, and pity from me. It seemed terrible and sad that anyone should have to live this way.
And while the writing is amazing and the characters compelling, the subject matter could be so dark and difficult that it was hard to stay engaged with the story, and I found myself at times struggling to finish the novel.
Velvet Was the Night, with its beautiful prose and haunting storyline and imagery, is a book that will appeal to fans of gritty, unsentimental crime fiction that takes a hard look at the difficult realities of the more treacherous parts of the world and who enjoy flawed (in some cases deeply so) characters finding their way forward in the midst of peril.