‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a historical noir novel set in 1970s Mexico, a place of student protests and massive political unrest. It provides an intriguing insight into a piece of history rarely portrayed in fiction, and like all Silvia Moreno-Garcia novels is sharply written. Noir isn’t a genre I read particularly often, but for fans or those looking for a taut piece of historical fiction this is a solid read.
Mexico City, sometime in the 1970s. The government is cracking down on student protests, often forcefully, with shadowy gangs enlisted to do the dirty work. Elvis – a pseudonym only – has found himself part of one of these gangs, roughing up reporters and stealing information for his boss. It’s not the life he dreamed of, but it got him out of his dead-end hometown and he’s determined to never go back. At first glance, Elvis has little in common with Maite – a secretary who lives for vinyl records and the comic series ‘Secret Romance’. However, the disappearance of a student protestor named Leonora sets both of them on a path to find her. Against a backdrop of violence, hitmen, and simmering secrets, their lives draw inexorably closer – and Elvis finds himself captivated by a woman who shares both his love of rock and roll and the loneliness in his heart.
‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a brutal story. Elvis is the ultimate anti-hero – a gangster beating up journalists and students just on his boss’s say-so. Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job getting the reader to sympathise with him despite his violent actions. Elvis is obsessed with rock and roll and the West – idolising Elvis Presley- and dreams of success in a childlike, abstract way. He uses music to escape from the harsh reality of his life. Elvis is young and naive, and while he’s not always a nice character he’s one it’s easy to feel sorry for and root for.
Maite, on the other hand, is a self-deprecating woman to the extent it occasionally gets on the reader’s nerves. Just turning thirty, Maite adores romance – she troves through romantic comics, especially ‘Secret Romance’, and despairs of the fact that she still hasn’t found someone to share her life with. She has an independent streak, but – possibly due to the opinions of her family and society at large – hates herself for what she perceives as her inadequacies. She’s not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough at conversation. Maite is a perfectly average young woman and that drives her to despair. Like Elvis, it’s easy to feel sorry for Maite – but she’s harder to root for, especially as she inevitably makes terrible choices.
The best part of this book is the setting. Moreno-Garcia paints an incredible picture of 1970s Mexico, transporting the reader to a slice of history where danger lurks around every corner yet the mundanity of everyday life trundles on. There’s the constant fear of riots and the police, but also ordinary struggles like paying the mechanic and dealing with nagging parents. The dichotomy works beautifully, and whilst this is exaggerated pulp fiction its based on fact and those influences are fascinating.
The plot is entertaining. Most of the twists are easily guessable, but there are a few surprises, and this is intrinsically designed to be an easy-read book rather than one with too much hidden below the surface. It’s the perfect read after a long day when you want to switch off and not think too much. There are lots of references to the rock and roll scene – not something I’m familiar with, but fans will likely appreciate them.
The main weakness is a certain degree of separation between the reader and the characters. Maite and Elvis always feel like characters rather than fully rounded people. They’re a little too caricaturic – especially Maite. It’s still enjoyable, and it’s definitely a noir rather than a character study – but it would be nice if Maite was taken a little outside her romance-loving secretary stereotype.
Overall, ‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a solid noir novel with an intriguing historical basis and lots of references to the rock and roll music scene. It highlights once again Moreno-Garcia’s sheer versatility as a novelist, and provides a peek at a slice of history rarely referenced in modern media. Recommended for fans of noir and thriller novels along with those looking for a readable piece of historical fiction.
Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review
Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 17th August 2021