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.
Yes, the author of last year’s breakout horror novel Mexican Gothic is back, this time with a neo-noir masterpiece that will have you cancelling your dinner plans so you can finish this sucker in one sitting. Folks, these pages turn themselves and despite the dark themes, freedom crushing state violence, and a story completely lacking in empathy, Velvet Was the Night is one of the most fun reads this year.
“Noirs are essentially psychological narratives with the action—however violent or fast-paced—less significant than faces, gestures, words—than the truth of the characters.”
Like the summary says, Maite is a ghost in a city on the brink of disaster, as two diametrically opposed political and socio-economic realities are clashing violently on the streets of a 1970s Mexico City. Disconnected from it all, choosing fantasy and mundane over engagement, no one could ever accuse Maite of being au courant on anything besides troubadours. Yes, she certainly loves her some crooner music. When she begrudgingly agrees (with a considerable mark up) to cat-sit for her free-spirited neighbor Leonora, she wouldn’t know it at the time, but things are set in motion which cannot be undone, thrusting Maite into a world of mystery, murder, and corruption she only reads about in her comic books.
What starts out as a sort of debt collection for Maite (she really needs the cat-sitting money), turns into a missing-persons case as Leonora has disappeared from the face of the earth. This would all be fairly simple if not for the fact that there are other more serious types looking for her as well, more specifically her camera and some potentially incriminating photographs of people you don’t want potentially incriminating photographs of. So, whether she knows it or not, whether she likes it or not, Maite is now caught up is something much more than she bargained for. And this brings other characters into her life that make up the rest of the cast for remainder of this wonderful book.
This is a non-spoiler review and, in a noir/murder/mystery type premise the less you say the better, and Silvia certainly doesn’t need my stupid ass ruining any of the surprises. But the story is extremely well-paced, tight as all hell, and full of characters you’d expect to find in something such as this. From a cast standpoint, I’m reminded of The Nice Guys, another great neo-noir premise, albeit with comedy leanings and like that movie, Velvet Was the Night has a cast of revolving characters (both domestic and foreign) that are all up to the task of creating suspicion, intrigue, and plot without crowding the plate. Yes, every single character affects the plot in some way, each one a natural extension of the time and place in which the story exists.
But despite all that, Silvia never lets you forget that this book has two stars, and two stars only, Maite Jaramillo and Ermenegildo aka “Elvis”. Playing the “The Dreamer” archetype you’ve got Maite, who, for all intents and purposes, is unassuming, hopeless, and incredibly relatable. And watching her from a safe distance is Elvis as “The Rogue”, a Type A pipe-dreamer with a tough exterior and a chewy center.
“She was part of a story.”
Maite is entirely way too hard on herself, a product of a callous mother and a very self-involved sister. Her otherwise constant state of malaise is only interrupted by a keen understanding that life has probably passed her by at the ripe old age of thirty. Stuck in a secretarial job at a law firm that has “the road to nowhere” written all over it, Maite is a classic girl in a time where the old is coming face to face with the new. Yes, the times they are a changing for this powder keg known as Mexico in the 1960s/70s.
Here’s the thing, Maite doesn’t really drink, doesn’t smoke, her tastes in music and literature aren’t hip by the standards of the day, even as the Mexican government engages in the suppression of rock music at the time. But she has imagination to spare and when the opportunity presents itself, Maite does have at least the courage to make a choice, either change the course of her life, or stop lying to Diana!
That quote above would be a throwaway line in most any other situation or context, but, if you know Maite in the way she’s presented to us in the early parts of this book, that line lands like a fucking atomic bomb. It’s everything Maite has ever wanted, dreamed, and fantasized about while she reads the latest issue of Secret Romance, her favorite adult comic book, or when she’s woolgathering at work or spending her quiet nights alone listening to records. She even externalizes this desire on occasion, fabricating an audacious social life to her work friend Diana who laps it all up, being equally dull and less spirited. Her fantasies fall somewhere between PG and R-rated as she Walter Mitty’s her way through an infinite amount of overcast days counting on a fool’s paradise to be hand delivered. This inability to manufacture excitement to any extent whatsoever even includes the mundane, being too afraid to even confront crooked mechanics who are essentially holding her car ransom or her mother when she bakes a chocolate cake for her birthday, her least favorite.
Elvis is kind of a male version of Maite, although like her, he’s not your prototypical version of the gender norms of the time. He doesn’t exude authority or demand respect like his boss El Mago, or is prone to violent fits of rage like one of his co-Hawks El Guero. As far as career outlook, he’s not entirely sure what he wants, mostly finding idolisation in honcho El Mago who has earned himself a good living, enjoying the niceties in life. But he doesn’t dream big because he has no reason to, aware that someone like him has very little options in life.
But he’s no dummy, exudes control, and is a critical thinker. In fact, you get the feeling that in another life, and under the right circumstances, Elvis could have achieved great things, but such as it is, he’s mostly a roguish cowboy for hire, with good looks, great taste, and a stiff upper lip. And while others are adorned with images of Che Guevara and reading about the exploits of Carolos Marighella, Elvis is thinking about, well, Elvis, Presley to be precise. Yes, the King of Rock and Roll has at least one fan in Elvis who more than just his name, lives his life based on the simple premise, “What would Elvis do?”.
Like Maite he’s a huge fan of music, crooner music, and has specific tastes in literature as well. These two things in particular are what Elvis and Maite share a love for and what catches Elvis’s attention initially. This connection leads to a wonderful near-miss scene in a bar involving a jukebox, but that’s all I’ll say. For most of the book that’s as close as they get, because their paths don’t just cross but wrap around each other like two colors on a barber’s pole or two snakes in the throes of a mating ritual. And the laws of attraction are no match for Silvia’s skill as a writer as she somehow defies the laws of nature and physics, keeping these two apart as long as she has to.
It’s a very, very smart thing Silvia does here, keeping her two leads apart to within an inch of the book’s life. And in lesser hands that would be a mistake, but in Silvia’s, it’s a masterclass in how to build and manage expectation and how to not railroad your own story. In many ways, this unconventional romance will get you hot and bothered as much, if not more, than any conventional one you’ve read this year. I can’t think of two people more suited for each other, both anachronistic, plucked from another time and place, which is never more apparent than in the way they interact with the world around them, including the cast of characters Silvia gives us.
The title, Velvet Was the Night is a lyric from the song Blue Velvet which in this case is sung by Bobby Vinton in 1963. This song, along with a handful of others from that time period, appears a few times in this story not only as unique descriptors to Maite and Elvis’s states of mind, but as reminders of the time in which they exist. In fact, music plays a big part of this story both narratively and personally to Silvia, something she explains with grace in the back matter of the book so I won’t bother, but I encourage you to read it.
It’s important narratively because like I said, the music someone listen’s to says a lot about who they are, how they’re feeling, and the overall mood of the story or scene. Yes, thanks to films like Blue Velvet, this song is basically a noir anthem and perfectly conjures up the vintage tonally dark mood and aesthetic Silvia completely hits out of the park.
Oh, and DO NOT discount the historical aspect of this story which, as you’ll see, is so closely based on real events and real people, the book strays into non-fiction quite often. Taking place at the beginning of the Mexican Dirty War, an internal conflict that would run from 1964 to 1982, the book closely follows The Hawks, a paramilitary group that was used by the Mexican government to attack, torture, and kill leftist students, protesters, and snuff out political dissent. Basically, get rid of the commies. That alone is worthy of discussion and a book deal, yet Silvia uses it as an effective backdrop to what is essentially a romance story.
The way Silvia transposes the political upheaval of the time into her landscape is wonderful, clearly aware of the importance of the times. And yet, she’s not making a political statement necessarily and Velvet Was the Night is by no means a manifesto, it’s simply a fact-based slice of life tale. If anything, her leads are mostly apolitical, Maite in particular, who chooses to sit out most anything if it means trouble. And Elvis, who is closer to the news of the day, doesn’t really have any skin in the game, choosing not to take sides, just profit from it. I suppose the way you feel about the authoritarian and military regimes in question, which was a reaction to the supposed threat of communism, will largely depend on how you feel about it currently. Again, I don’t believe this is a doctrine on Silvia’s part, just a statement of fact, but of course no one wants to see a repeat of the “dirty wars.”
So, what’s the bottom line?
I’m sure some will say this is a book lacking in characters with redeeming qualities, or that the two leads, Maite and Elvis, are unlikable anti-heroes. Technically that’s true, on both points, but guess what, that makes Velvet Was the Night shine, as it presents to us two very real, very tactile people caught up in something beyond their control. Use whatever idiom you choose, but Maite is your classic fish out of water, and how she reacts has everything to do with the outcome of the story. This is no Indiana Jones here, Maite is entirely consequential to the plot and it’s wonderful, and anyone who doesn’t like Maite is my enemy!
With a great introduction, a killer playlist, which is the books in-universe soundtrack, and a very edifying author’s notes, this book is a fantastic cover-to-cover read. Oh, and once again, Silvia has given us one of the best covers of the year, and don’t even get me started on that epilogue!
I haven’t read a lot of noir books this year, but I have read a lot of books period, and Velvet Was the Night is one of the best of the year, and it has become increasingly clear that Silvia Moreno-Garcia can bang out any genre she chooses. She’s a gift.
Velvet Was the Night is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!
Variant cover art by Jenifer Prince.
About the Author:
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, she lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.