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Velvet Was The Night
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 16, 2021

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Silvia Moreno-Garcia's seventh novel is a noir mystery based on historical events in early 1970s Mexico City. Many names of real people and organizations are used, from politicians to radical activists, but this concentrates on several ordinary people caught up in the periphery of the action. I pre-ordered the hardcover, due to release tomorrow August 17, but also requested ARCs from Edelweiss and Net Galley. The former declined, the latter approved my request. I normally review ARCs a couple of weeks to a month ahead of publication, and intended to do the same for this one. However, a publisher's note at the beginning requested reviews to be held till the due date. Since anyone pre-ordering the e-book will get it by midnight tonight, I didn't want to wait any longer. Unfortunately, there were many typos and formatting errors, so I feel like I should re-read as soon as I get the physical book.

It's written in third person, but from the perspective of two different people, and the style of the exposition is distinctly different between the two. El Elvis is an operative of the Hawks (El Halcones), a group of enforcers that had been trained by the military (and indirectly by the CIA) to investigate and disrupt the activities of leftist activists, to fight against communist infiltration into Mexico. They had been involved in the Tlatelolco massacre, which was an attempt to clear the city of dissidents prior to the Summer Olympics in 1968. A similar event took place on 10 June 1971, known as El Halconazo, or the Corpus Christi Day Massacre. Elvis is not his real name, and perhaps another he gives late in the book isn't real either, but all the Hawks have code names like that, and Elvis doesn't know the real names of his superiors or the others he works with. Head of the Hawks is El Mago, Elvis's direct superior is El Gazpacho, and his group consists of El Güero, and The Antelope. Not sure why the last is not El Antílope. Elvis chose his name because he loves popular music and has several of The King's albums. He admires El Mago, who is always immaculately groomed, and who speaks with eloquence. El Mago encouraged Elvis to broaden his education, and he starts by learning a 'word a day' to add to his vocabulary, and while he has many books (mostly stolen) he doesn't read well, but is improving.

Maite Jaramillo is a 30-year-old secretary at a law firm. She lives alone, in spite of her mother's constant complaints that she can't afford it. Maite has next to no social life, but is in the habit of lying to her co-workers about her non-existent boyfriends. She lives within fantasies of romance, similar to the ones she reads in her favorite comic, Secret Romance. She also loves music, and has amassed an impressive vinyl collection. Several times people have to ask her, "You don't read the papers, do you?" since Maite is oblivious to the political and social upheaval going on all around her. That changes when her across-the-hall neighbor asks her to watch her cat while she goes away for the weekend. Maite hadn't even known her neighbor's name before this, but is quickly propelled into Leonora's world when the woman goes missing, and several people are interested in a camera and photos Leonora supposedly had. Elvis had been assigned to find Leonora, so his investigation eventually turns to Maite as well, since she has been inquiring about Leonora herself. Maite is only interested in the money Leonora owes her, since she is desperate to pay off her mechanic and get her car back.

While I liked the book, I can't say I liked any of the characters. Maite is generally weak, always self-deprecating, subservient to her mother and her sister, stuck in a dead-end job, and susceptible to manipulation by everyone, including her own fantasies. She has what Malka Older calls "narrative disorder," always envisioning her life as scenarios out of her comics, hopeful that others will act accordingly. Elvis is just following orders, and while he is not as violent as some of his cohorts, he hasn't given much thought to the morality of his actions. He does start to question things El Mago may have done, and eventually breaks from the Hawks (which were destined to be disbanded anyway), but he still doesn't seem to have any direction for his life. None of the other characters are developed to any significant degree, and Silvia's usual realistic dialogue is lacking. Perhaps it's the nature of noir, of which I haven't read much, and it has been a long time, but here it seems mostly clichéd. The exposition in the Elvis scenes contains a lot of profanity, descriptions and exclamations more appropriate for dialogue rather than third-person commentary. Some of the action scenes are not well described, with Maite or Elvis being able to escape the situation too easily. There are times events are described from Maite's perspective, then it backtracks and overlaps Elvis's perception, which hinders the pace of the action.

I love the cover image, but that can't be Maite. She is frequently described, even by herself, as unattractive, mousy. She may think of herself as the heroine of the story, but that has never been the reality. That must be Leonora, whose story could make another book. The photos she has could implicate powerful people in illegal activities, but due to other events that is eventually moot. So, an interesting story, but the pacing is off, and the expostion uneven. While it will likely appeal to many, it left me wanting more, or at least a different approach. I will still re-read it to see if my opinion changes. As much as I've liked everything else by Silvia I've read, I have to be honest to say it pains me to not be able to end this like my other reviews, saying she never disappoints.


Related Links:
Silvia's Official Website
My reviews of her other books


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Silvia Moreno-Garcia

August 17, 2021

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