Given the success of Mexican Gothic, which landed Silvia Moreno-Garcia in the New York Times bestsellers list and made her — finally — a household name, it’d be understandable to expect her to repeat that novel’s formula; a wonderful mix of gothic horror, historical fiction, and nightmares. However, Velvet Was the Night, her latest novel, is nothing like Mexican Gothic, and that’s great because it’ll show her new readers what others have known for years: Moreno-Garcia’s work is like a wild pendulum that swings from horror to fantasy to noir, and she does them all equally well.
Velvet Was the Night pulls readers into the chaos of Mexico City in the early 70s. Maite works as a secretary, lies to her coworkers about her weekends and imaginary dates, and loves to listen to records and read romance comics. As students protest in the streets, people disappear for political reasons, and political mayhem fills the city with warring groups and violence, Maite lives in a lonely, unhappy bubble. When Leonora, her next-door neighbor, hires Maite to take care of her cat while she’s away for a few days — and then vanishes under suspicious circumstances, Maite starts looking for her and soon finds herself deep in Leonora’s world of dissidents, artists with secret agendas, and dangerous politics.
Meanwhile, Elvis, a young man working as a criminal for hire for a man called El Mago, is assigned to look for Leonora, but ends up keeping tabs on Maite and thinking of her as a potential girlfriend, given their shared interests. But Maite and Elvis aren’t the only ones after Leonora and the photographs she may or may not have, so their search puts them on the same path as shady government groups and Russian spies, both of whom will torture and kill anyone to get the answers they want.
Moreno-Garcia does many things well here. The first is creating memorable characters. Maite and Elvis are unique, flawed, and sad in a way that burrows into your heart. Maite is 30 going on 50. She hates the way she looks and almost everything she wears. Her mother critiques her constantly and she doesn’t make much at her job, which she hates. She steals little things from the gigs she gets taking care of animals and her only companion — besides her beloved books and albums — is a parakeet. Maite considers herself a spinster and fantasizes about the kind of romance she reads about in comics like Lágrimas y Risas and Secret Romance.
On the other hand, Elvis is a criminal who hates violence and loves rock-and-roll. He was kicked out of school partly for being dyslexic — undiagnosed, of course — but he picks a new word to learn every day:
Elvis repeated the word of the day in his mind, the drummed his fingers against his thigh, to the rhythm of silent music. Presley, singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Half note, half not, sweet as honey. Life should be a slow song, affection should be a melody. The word of the day was necrology, and he was thinking about fate and lovers.
Elvis isn’t a thug; he’s a kid with a kind heart who got dealt a crappy hand in life. He and Maite are depressed planets, both slightly astray and orbiting each other, their loneliness an invisible thing that, unknowingly to them, ties them together in a profound way.
The second thing Moreno-Garcia excels at is creating a complicated plot that’s easy to read. Between Russian spies, dissident artists, and government agencies, there are many moving parts in this novel, but she handles them beautifully and allows her characters to deliver all necessary information; even if you’re not remotely familiar with the ripple effects of May 1968 or the political turmoil of Mexico in the 70s, you’ll still be able to keep up:
In the papers, columnists accused communist foreigners of corrupting Mexico’s youth and attempting to destroy the nation. The cops were innocent, lawful citizens doing their jobs. Perhaps it wasn’t true, but it made Maite’s skin prickle with dread, because no one wanted a repeat of ’68. That had been a bloody mess. People whispered snipers hired by the government had opened fire. Student riots had threatened the Olympics, and the government had quelled them by force.
Velvet Was the Night possesses a slow-burn plot where truths are revealed one at a time, but the heart of it is not the intrigue and violence surrounding Leonora’s disappearance. No, the heart of this novel is its two main characters, Maite and Elvis, and the way they bring the story to life. This is a noir with a heart of gold, and it’s a narrative in which the empathy we feel for its characters ultimately reveals an important truth: That Moreno-Garcia is not only a talented storyteller but also an incredibly versatile one.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.