Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Velvet Was the Night

Mexico City in 1970s is a melting pot of different realities. Political unrest, protesting students, criminals of various sizes and street credibility. And ordinary citizens who just to want to get on with their lives which often are just so mundane and unexciting. Thirty-year-old Maite works as a secretary in a law firm but is bored to death, metaphorically speaking, with her dull existence which she tries to escape via pages of Secret Romance, publishing stories of passion and danger, and through listening to music. She also enjoys stealing little objects from homes she visits. When her neighbour, a jealousy-inducing beautiful art student Leonora, asks her to feed a cat during her absence, Maite grudgingly agrees. She hates cats but likes extra income. However, when Leonora doesn’t return on time and instead a handsome photographer comes to retrieve an important camera film, she begins a search for the missing woman. Reluctantly. This might bring intrigue and excitement, and maybe even a sexual encounter so badly lacking from her life. What she doesn’t realise that she will soon enter the world of political rebels, radicals and dissidents; be followed by a secret agent and become embroiled in a very complicated case.

El Elvis (not his real name) really doesn’t like beating people. As a member of an unofficial Hawk group, working for the government and set up to inform on student activities to weed out all those politically inconvenient, and to seriously disrupt any demonstrations, he has to be brutal. But he still prefers to carry a screwdriver rather than a knife with him, learns one difficult word a day and listens to rock’n’roll. After a serious fiasco and a death at one of the protests he needs to find his way back into his boss’ good books and with some hesitation he takes responsibility for a small team of basically violent idiots, begins to watch Maite and also looks for Leonora. He has no idea about the reasons; yet, this kind of job is better than landing again on the streets, with no protection and no sense of belonging. 

Maite and Elvis don’t work together but within days come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, and learn more about their country and how it’s run. They don’t comprehend everything, and become aware that dangers are lurking everywhere, in the form of hitmen, government agents and Russian spies aiming to find or protect Leonora’s secrets.

Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia effortlessly blends real historical events with the fictional characters wonderfully suited to this eccentric noir tale, with pacy narration and many interesting details from the era. The parallel lives of Elvis and Maite bring tension and drama, as well as a huge dose of dark observations and even some lyricism. The reluctant criminal and the sad secretary won’t admit that they are lonely; and this hidden emotion seems to be the engine that drives their actions. The author also throws some brilliant humorous observations that confirm how well she creates the authentic setting in the novel, the setting so slightly absurd yet inspired by relatively recent history. Let me leave you with this quote: ‘Hippies were all a bunch of losers and marijuanos who gave women venereal diseases and organised orgies; that’s what people at her office said.’ Do you recall any fictional Nordic character saying something like that?

Velvet was the Night was published in August 2021 by Jo Fletcher Books

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