A little cozy noir for your autumn reading pleasure, anyone? I feel like fall is the perfect time for this particular genre, with its leanings towards the shadowy, the subversive, the underworld. Even the name noir feels like it pairs well with shorter days and the smell of woodsmoke and decaying leaves.
With that in mind, I was excited to sink into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s newest novel, Velvet Was the Night. It ticked a lot of my boxes right off the bat: noir with a female lead; a vintage setting (1970s Mexico City); a backdrop of historical political unrest; a fabulous title; and a gorgeous cover.
However…results are mixed.
There were some things I really liked about this book. And there were some things I really did not. Let’s start with the characters.
Maite and Elvis are the two protagonists, and the narrative switches back and forth between them, more or less chapter by chapter. Maite is the “innocent” woman who loves sensational romance comic books and gets unwittingly involved with her neighbour’s disappearance, soon becoming tangled up in a web of criminals, dissidents, government agents, and guns-for-hire. Elvis is a member of the Hawks, a shady group of organized and trained agents whose job it is to infiltrate and intimidate student activists. Elvis is a reluctant fighter, a lover of rock ‘n’ roll (could you tell from his name?), and an introspective, thoughtful kind of thug. You know, the kind of thug who reads the dictionary for fun.
I loved Elvis, and considered him to be the highlight of the book. He’s smart, he’s lonely, he’s loyal, and he never once gave me pause. He faces hard situations and has thoughts about them. He does some good things, he does some bad things. I 100% believe in Elvis as a human being.
Then there’s Maite. Here’s where the first shoe drops. And it’s a big shoe. Like, a clown shoe. Because I HATED Maite. I will admit that I am one of those people who struggles with a book if I don’t find something redeeming in the protagonist. Perhaps that’s a flaw—but here we are. I’m not saying that I want my characters to be Mary Sues; on the contrary, I love a good character flaw or three. But I found absolutely nothing redeemable about Maite, and it pained me.
I think that Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s portrayal of Maite as spectacularly loathsome has to be intentional—and I think it is such an odd choice. Maite is petty, small-minded, wilfully ignorant, selfish, and self-aggrandizing. She keeps an unnamed parakeet in a too-small cage. She spends a significant amount of the novel hating on a cat. A cat!!
A cat, I might add, whom she has become responsible for since the disappearance of her neighbour.
Another possible character flaw of mine: I am that person who can’t handle animal cruelty or death (in life or in fiction), and so the second an animal gets introduced into a narrative, I start to worry about it. I was SO DISTRACTED by worrying about this poor cat who has the misfortune of being (dubiously) looked after by this narcissistic ding-dong, that I found it hard to enjoy the story.
A fat tabby rubbed against Maite’s legs, and she shooed it away, irritated by the animal.”Velvet Was the Night
Mild spoiler: The cat is fine in the end. I don’t feel bad telling you that because it has zero impact on the rest of the story. So little impact, in fact, that I wonder why all the cat-hating is there in the first place, if not to make Maite unsympathetic. Worse even, Maite does not have any character growth at all. Her experiences do nothing to expand her horizons. At the end of the book she is still whiny, self-pitying, and self-involved. UGH. Thank goodness Elvis was there to give me some relief. Because of how I felt about Maite, there were aspects of the book, including the ending, that I found very unsatisfying.
But there were things about the book that I enjoyed. I liked the historical backdrop. The Hawks (Los Halcones) were a real shock group, funded and trained by the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (Mexican intelligence agency and secret police) and the CIA, and infamously involved in the Corpus Christi Massacre, or El Halconazo on June 10, 1971. As Moreno-Garcia writes in the afterword: “My novel is noir, pulp fiction, but it’s based on a real horror story.” It is a fascinating portrait of a time and a place.
The storytelling is also really good. The way the story weaves between Elvis and Maite, sometimes crossing over and looping back, is very well done and effective. There are a lot of characters being juggled—both the players in the drama and the bits of backstory for both of the protagonists—but they are all necessary to add the needed depth, and I was never overwhelmed or confused.
Some of the prose is really striking. Although I would categorize this firmly as a plot-centred book rather than a language-centred one, there are still some really beautiful moments.
Overall though (to add a final grumble), I found the book to be lacking in the noirish atmosphere that I was craving. Despite the rich setting and the skilfully rendered factions and groups, the book didn’t really create the ambience of dread and darkness that I look for in a noir. Sure, there was some rain here and there, but it didn’t quite do the trick.
So there you have it. My very mixed review of Velvet Was the Night. Take what you will from it. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this one.
Maite raised her chin, glancing at the man who had thrown a coin into the jukebox, and he looked back at her—his eyes were black, not the blue of the song, but they did resemble the soft velvet upon which you could pin jewels. No one ever looked at Maite for too long, but the man was staring at her. He had a cigarette in hand, but he wasn’t smoking; instead he leaned an arm against the jukebox, looking terribly thoughtful, and he slowly pressed the cigarette against his lips and smirked, his lips curling a tad, before he smoothed his expression and walked back to his table, breaking eye contact.”Velvet Was the Night