Title: Velvet Was the Night
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: August 17, 2021
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Noir/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
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.
I’ll keep this brief: Velvet Was the Night is an atmospheric noir dive into Mexico City of the early 1970s, a time of student uprisings, police and secret forces and foreign agents, class divisions and criminal underworlds and anarchic collectives. Into this setting, author Silvia Moreno-Garcia inserts a tale of a missing person, a lonely young woman who gets in over her head, and the young thug who dreams of a more glamorous life, set to the tune of great American crooners like Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin.
Maite is 30 years old, an unmarried secretary looked down upon by her family, who finds delight in old records and romantic serial comics, and who secretly steals small tokens from her neighbors in order to find a source of vicarious excitement in her otherwise lonely and uneventful life.
When her neighbor Leonora asks Maite to look after her cat for a few days, she has no idea that soon she’ll be questioned by thugs, government agents, and Leonora’s ex-lover, all searching for film that Leonora might have left behind — photos of police brutality at a student protest. Out of annoyance at Leonora’s disappearance — leaving her behind with an unwanted cat and without her promised payments — Maite begins to try to track down Leonora, but soon finds herself caught up in a tightening web of criminals and spies, somehow envisioning herself living within a romantic adventure story without truly realizing the danger she’s in.
Meanwhile, Elvis is an enforcer with the Hawks, secretive cells of young goons who infiltrate protests and student collectives on behalf of the government, to squash political activism and threaten those who step out of line, using brutality and any means necessary to achieve their goals. Elvis has nothing else in his life, but he dreams of rising out of this seedy life to a position where he can be respected and can enjoy fine music and beautiful things.
Maite and Elvis’s paths eventually cross, as the tension builds, and each discovers hidden links about Leonora and her connections.
The storytelling embraces the grittiness of a noir setting, while bringing to life the feel of 1970s Mexico City. Through the characters, we get a good feel of the economics and politics of the time, as well as the casual way an otherwise uninvolved person can stumble into intrigue and mortal danger.
I did find the political elements and names of the various secrets forces somewhat confusing, not being particularly familiar with the history of that place and time. I was able to follow along well enough, but occasionally felt like I was missing something.
Velvet Was the Night is action-oriented, yet also conveys a well-defined character study of two very different people, Elvis and Maite, showing their inner lives, their thwarted dreams, and their overwhelming loneliness.
I enjoyed the book, especially because I listened to the audio version, with great narration by Gisela Chipe. At times, I felt the constant car chases and fistfights and scenes of intimidation were too much, and it was much too obvious where the hidden photos were, but overall, this is an entertaining read/listen — a book with a setting that’s very different from most of the other reading I did in 2021.