Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Velvet was the Night, Jo Fletcher Books 2021
First line: He didn’t like beating people.
Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those ridiculously talented authors who can turn her hand to any genre. She’s probably best known for her novel Mexican Gothic (it does what it says on the tin), but describes her latest novel as ‘noir/pulp fiction’, albeit with an unusual historical twist.
Velvet was the Night is set in 1970s Mexico during the ‘Guerra sucia’ or Dirty War, which saw the right-wing government abduct, imprison and often murder those viewed as a threat to its ideology and power – especially left-wing students and working-class activists. Audaciously, one of the novel’s main characters is a member of Los Halcones – the Hawks – a shadowy group of heavies trained by the government (with the covert backing of the CIA) to disrupt student demos and worse. The codename of the young man in question is El Elvis, after his musical idol, and it is through his eyes that we observe both the internal workings of the group and the psychology of an individual who’s got himself into a serious fix.
Velvet‘s other key figure is Maite Jaramillo, a secretary terrified of spinsterhood, who escapes the everyday grind and turbulent politics around her through a love of music and Secret Romance magazines. She also harbours a grubby secret of her own: she likes to steal small items from her neighbours’ apartments while pet-sitting for them. It’s when beautiful, bohemian student Leonora disappears – and thus fails to reclaim her cat – that Maite’s humdrum world gets turned upside down.
Along with the characterisation, a key strength of Velvet was the Night is its tightly plotted narrative. Its ending feels satisfying and complete, but could also serve as an intriguing beginning to a whole other story. Another very nice touch is the playlist at the back of the novel, which showcases the songs woven into the text – a clever nod to the subversive status of certain kinds of music in 1970s Mexico. You can find it on Spotify here.
True crime tidbit: many who work in the world of publishing, like my good self, have been following a bizarre, long-running case involving fake identities and a phishing scam whose aim was getting hold of valuable manuscripts prior to publication. News comes this morning that the FBI has made an arrest… Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but it’s quite a breakthrough in what’s an absolutely fascinating case for bookish types – not least in relation to the question of motivation. It’ll make a great podcast.