Last year’s Mexican Gothic was my introduction to Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and while her 2021 release wasn’t a horror, I was equally drawn to the plot and, truth be told, the cover; it’s not as stunning as the cover of Mexican Gothic, but just like that cover made clear the novel was a gothic, Velvet was the Night (Del Rey, 2021) boosts a cover that announces the novel, loudly, as a noir.
Set in the 1970s in Mexico City, the novel follows Maite, an unremarkable secretary at a law firm who spends most of her time reading romance comics and making up stories about her dating life to share with her coworker. Maite is stagnant and dissatisfied with her existence; her only excitement comes from the romance comics she devours and the daydreams that fed her. She’s not very likable. I understand it’s a noir and she’s supposed to be flawed, but that doesn’t mean she has to be disliked.
Consider Elvis, the other voice in the alternating POVs. He’s horribly flawed and does horrendous things to people, but he’s likable. His mannerisms, his voice, his thought process… he’s just darn likable. It doesn’t matter that he is a member of the Hawks, a gang funded and trained in secret by the Mexican government, whose entire purpose is to control leftists and activists, particularly students, by any means necessary. (The Hawks was a real group, and some of the attacks depicted in the novel are based on actual events.)
Both Elvis and Maite are looking for Leonora, Maite’s next door neighbor. Elvis is on assignment. Maite just wants the girl to get her damn cat. When she’d agreed to watch the feline, it was only supposed to be for a few days, and she needs Leonora to hurry home, get her cat, and pay Maite so that Maite can get her car out of the shop.
Maite unknowingly finds herself eyeballs deep in a very dangerous situation, but she treats it as if she is the leading lady in one of her beloved comics. She fantasizes about two of Leonora’s former love interests, promising to help them both in their search for Leonora and the film that she has. It’s the film that everyone wants. The undeveloped film allegedly depicts evidence of the Hawks. Leonora’s “friends” want the photos so they can be published in the paper and the Hawks and the government’s involvement be exposed. The man that Elvis answers to wants the film (and Leonora) for other reasons. Regardless of who finds her first and what happens to the film, Maite’s life (and Elvis’s) will never be the same. I just wish Maite had liked the damn cat!
Velvet was the Night is a slow burn but a quick read, and the nuances in the characters are what make it so unique. It’s wrapped in shadows, secrets, and smoke – as every noir should be. If you’re looking for a historical noir with a bit of flair, pick this one up.