Velvet Was The Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Silvia Moreno-Garcia has been carving out her own niche in the world of genre fiction for a long time, publishing science fiction, fantasy and horror stories and novels in small presses, and winning several awards. She’s co-edited a magazine, and is the publisher of a small press. She received little mainstream recognition until her breakthrough hit, the bestselling Mexican Gothicwas published last year. In other words, she’s got where she is today through years of persistence, hard work and dedication, and I really, really respect and admire that. So, I really, really wanted to like this book. The blurb sounded exciting – a crime noir set in 1970s Mexico City – and the cover is spectacular – sexy, seventies and dangerous. My expectations were high. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that Velvet Was the Night really delivered on its promise.

Velvet has two protagonists, who become drawn to each other as their stories gradually intertwine. Elvis is a young and reluctant member of ‘The Hawks,’ a goon squad used by the military and government to quash leftist political protests. Elvis is a smart but naïve fantasist with a taste for old school rock’n’roll and self-improvement, and a distaste for the violence that forms the core of his work.  Maite is a sheltered secretary who also loves old music and escaping into her Secret Romance comics. When Maite’s next-door neighbour Leonora goes missing, she and Elvis both have reasons to track her down, and are drawn into a dangerous world of student radicals, Russian spies, hitmen and double agents, all determined to get their hands on Leonora’s secrets.

It’s a noir-ish world, full of intrigue and conspiracy, but it’s disappointingly thin on historical and political detail. I opened this book knowing nothing at all about Mexico in the 1970s, and I don’t feel I learnt much. What, exactly, were all students protesting about? Why did the authorities create goon squads? What impact did the right-wing politics of the time have on people’s lives? Apart from the closure of some live music bars, we never really find out, nor do we get much insight into the minds of the big players. The plot holds few surprises and the snail-like pace gives readers plenty of time to figure out where it’s going.

Elvis is not a typically noir-ish character with a self-destructive streak. In fact, he is carefully established as a terribly nice sort of thug. He’s a caring book lover who was only forced into a life of crime because of his dyslexia and leaves most of the beating to his fellow goons. Maite is a much more unpleasant, noir-ish character. She’s a kleptomaniac and animal hater, eaten away with self-pity and jealousy of other women. There’s a touch of Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen here, but Maite is too passive and clueless to be a true anti-heroine. Both characters are outsiders, utterly ignorant of politics and current affairs. All that their journeys of disillusionment and self-discovery teach them is that wealthy, glamorous people aren’t always very nice. Neither character has anything to lose except their record collections. All of this makes Velvet feel extremely low stakes.

James Ellroy, the contemporary king of noir novels, described his chosen genre as an amoral, titillating and nihilistic exploration of systematic corruption. He said, ‘the lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.’ I strongly suspect that Silvia Moreno is not actually the type of cynic who believes that the house always wins, so we may as well revel in our darker instincts while we have the chance. I think she’s probably a very nice person. This gives Velvet Was the Night a rather earnest tone. It is neither particularly doomed, nor especially fun.

Velvet Was The Night is published by Jo Fletcher and is available here.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the multi-award-winning author of Mexican Gothic (a New York Times bestseller), Gods of Jade and Shadow (one of Time magazine’s top 100 fantasy novels of all time), among others, The Beautiful Ones, Certain Dark Things and the forthcoming noir thriller Velvet was the Night, She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters). Born and brought up in Mexico, she now lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Reviewed by Kate Tyte

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