‘Velvet Was the Night’ a Sizzling Noir

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s been at it for over six years, but I’m ashamed to admit she didn’t even appear on my radar until 2019’s Gods of Jade and Shadow (a historical fantasy) appeared on NPR’s Book Concierge. She got some well-deserved attention last year from readers and reviewers big and small with the release of Mexican Gothic (as the name suggests, a gothic horror), but essentially she’s been spending her time writing whatever the heck she wants and making it all good regardless of genre. Velvet Was the Night, out today, fits right in with her eclectic brand, and sends readers into the noir genre.

Set during the student uprisings in 1970s Mexico City, Velvet is a story told from two vastly different points of view: Maite, a bored and lonely legal secretary always hurting for money, and Elvis, a member of a gang that concerns itself with, at turns, interrupting and triggering violent protests. As different as these two characters are, they both wind up entangled in the same mystery: the whereabouts of a twenty-something radical, Lenore—and the incriminating photos she took at a deadly protest.

Maite, who, at 30, fears she’s missed out on her chance for a romance like she reads in the pages of the illustrated romance magazines she loves, gets involved when Lenore, her neighbor, asks her to feed her cat while she goes away for a few days. With her paycheck far too small to cover the costs of her chronic car repairs, Maite agrees. But a few days come and go, and there’s no sign of Lenore, or her money. When Maite sees one of Lenore’s exes dropping by to check on her, she tries a more proactive approach to offload responsibility and get her payment through visiting the people in Lenore’s orbit. But because Lenore is involved with a radical group, her acquaintances tend to be radicals, too, and soon Maite finds herself under suspicion through association by a federal agent. Worse, the violence that put Lenore into hiding is now careening toward the person everyone seems to think knows where Lenore and those pictures are: Maite.

Meanwhile, Elvis is moving up in his gang, the Hawks, and the group’s leader gives him his own team as a reward for proven loyalty. His task: find Lenore and the photos she took. Since Lenore is nowhere to be found, Elvis and his new subordinates follow many of the same clues Maite does—but gets his information through more, uh, direct means. The bloodier his knuckles become, it seems, the less he knows. But stepping outside the strict guidelines provided by his boss, Elvis starts to see a bigger picture of what’s happening inside and out of the Hawks, and what he finds out makes every step all the more dangerous. 

I’ve written before about how I admire how little Moreno-Garcia cares if her characters–particularly her female characters—are considered “likable,” and the same holds true for Velvet. Maite is selfish, driven to find Lenore not out of concern for her neighbor’s wellbeing but because she’s just so sick of feeding that cat and wants her car fixed. She’s a bit of a petty thief, liberating little things from those around her out of boredom, and her maudlin approach to her nonexistent love life reminds me of that one roommate everyone seems to have who doesn’t talk or flirt much with anyone of their desired gender(s) but is convinced at 21 she’ll die an old maid because no one’s beating down the door to date her. Several times, I wanted to sit her down all like, “Maite, honey…”

Yet I did worry about her. I worried, and I got angry when other people’s problems threatened her dull but safe existence, even if she had sheltered herself away from knowing what was happening in her own city. And when she looked to get her lonely little heart broken, I was sad for her. Also, she has fantastic taste in music.

Elvis is a little easier to root for, even when it was obvious how badly he was being played by his boss. Moreno-Garcia paints him clearly as someone with legitimate promise to do good despite being stuck in a series of impossible situations, and as a result he’s easy to sympathize with. His story is more straightforward, too—and easier to engage with early on because of his proximity to the action at hand. His is the plotline that really pulled me through the setup of the book in ways Maite’s could not. The two threads start to entwine themselves about a third of the way in, though, and by halfway through both perspectives are indispensable.

And while every word of Velvet is fictional, Moreno-Garcia’s afterward reminds us it’s based on real events in a chapter of North American history I honestly heard nothing about until earlier this summer a tweet compared the protests about the Olympics in Tokyo to protests during Mexico City’s 1968 protests and ensuing violence. (I swear, being an adult is just a long process of finding out all the stuff teachers should have brought up instead of rehashing oversimplified accounts of the Boston Tea Party for the fifth time.) The multiple groups racing for the same information to use for their various purposes, hints of CIA involvement, local gangs being funded by the government…it’s madness, but it’s the factual story playing on the fringes of Moreno-Garcia’s character-driven fiction. She does a great job with it, too. Another book, another genre, and I’m finding myself more and more a ride-or-die Moreno-Garcia fan.

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