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Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new novel, Velvet Was the Night, has a campy title and over-the-top cover art featuring a woman, in glistening lipstick and gigantic sunglasses, smoking a cigarette. The sprawling, cursive typeface of the title looks like the opening credits of a mid-’40s movie, perhaps starring Gene Tierney as a gorgeous psychopath. Velvet Was the Night is Moreno-Garcia’s follow-up to her surprise bestseller from last year, Mexican Gothic, and an absolute flex. Mexican Gothic crossed the glossy suspense of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca with the morbid horror of H.P. Lovecraft and set this heady concoction amid the landed gentry of 1930s Mexico. Velvet Was the Night has little in common with the delirious Mexican Gothic. Its prose is lean, its characters are nobodies, its setting is urban, and there isn’t the slightest speck of the supernatural. But Moreno-Garcia, a bona fide literary chameleon, slips effortlessly out of the satin pumps of the gothic and into the beat-up wingtips of noir. The scary thing about this novel is how good it is.
Classic noir narratives may be gritty, but they also have a strange timelessness, as if the characters—femme fatale, hard-boiled hero, sneering henchman, sinister crime boss—exist, like archetypes, everywhere at once but nowhere in particular. One interpretation holds that noir novels and movies are packed with what Freud would call repressed material: the wartime experiences of several generations of Americans in both the 1910s and the 1940s. These are traumas that no one in the story talks about but that haunt the male characters. Noir movies are full of shadows, and the war is what’s in them.
The specificity of history, the insistent way it focuses on exactly what happened to which exact people at which particular place and time, seems at odds with the dream of classic noir. Yet some of the most striking later revivals of the form, like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, marry iconic gumshoe adventures to distinct historical events, such as the theft of water from California’s Owens Valley to fuel the growth of Los Angeles.
This is Moreno-Garcia’s game. Velvet Was the Night is set in Mexico City in 1971 and told from the alternating perspectives of two characters. One, known only by the nickname Elvis, works as a hired thug for an ambiguous gentleman known as El Mago. Elvis is part of a semitrained group called the Hawks, who are tasked with surveilling, beating, and harassing student activists and other perceived manifestations of “communism” who oppose the ruling party, the PRI. The other protagonist, Maite, is a secretary who has just turned 30 and salves her loneliness and boredom with romance comics. Leonora, the girl who lives across the hall, asks Maite to feed her cat while she’s out of town. (Maite, because she never goes anywhere, often supplements her modest income by feeding her neighbor’s pets.) When Leonora fails to return, Maite goes looking for her—or, more specifically, for her money and a way to unload the cat—and falls into an intrigue involving the Hawks, the government, the secret police, the KGB, and would-be student revolutionaries.
The incident that opens the novel, an attack on protesters that became known as the Corpus Christi massacre, actually happened. (It also serves as a pivotal moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.) It was one of a series of human rights violations committed by the PRI during Mexico’s Guerra Sucia, or Dirty War, of the 1970s. But for both Elvis and Maite, the causes behind the violence are remote and indistinct.
Elvis, a street kid from the provinces, admires and aspires to the genteel, cultured lifestyle of his boss and longs to someday possess a home like El Mago’s, “the beautiful books, the beautiful shelves, the antiques and decorative items.” He’s a striver who likes to read and owns a Larousse dictionary from which he learns one new word per day. Maite comes from a family that thinks so little of her that for her birthday her mother bakes her sister’s favorite cake. Maite’s plain, self-conscious about her ill-fitting inexpensive clothes, and trying to scrape together the cash to get her car out of the shop. The highlight of her week comes with the release of each new issue of Secret Romance.
What Elvis and Maite have in common—even if, for most of the novel, neither realizes it—is bookishness and, especially, their taste in music. Elvis got his nom de guerre from his love of the King, but like Maite, he’s most keen on ballads. Separately, the two listen to songs like “Love Me Tender” and “Strangers in the Night,” performed both by American crooners and the Mexican artists who covered their songs. Music, as Moreno-Garcia explains in her afterword, also played a role in the clashes between young people, who frequented “singing cafes” where pop and rock songs were performed, and the government, which eventually closed them down, arguing that they were hotbeds of rebelliousness. Elvis and Maite, however, like music two decades behind their own time—lush, swoony tunes from the somnambulant ’50s, the kind of music David Lynch characters brood to as they act out that artist’s noir fantasies.
“Some people are made to be lonely,” Elvis thinks when he learns that Maite has a recording of “Blue Velvet” and he imagines her listening to it, “late at night,” swaying “to the music, all alone, while the city slept.” Despite being deeply involved in the political violence around him, Elvis has no investment in his “fucked-up assignments watching folks when he didn’t give a damn if they were red or not—Jesus, what was the big deal about that? He needed the money.” Maite considers politics “terribly dull” compared with what she lives for: “love, frail as gossamer, stitched together from a thousand songs and a thousand comic books.” Both characters are fascinating creations, bristling with contradictory but convincing traits. Maite, for example, is both romantic and petty. She’s a patsy for one of Leonora’s ex-boyfriends simply because he’s handsome, suave, and rich like one of the heroes in her comics. She lies to a co-worker about her love life and steals small objects from people she meets, cherishing a collection of trinkets that make her feel as if she has peered “into the soul, the life, of another human being, and she had cut out a part of them and they’d never know it.” (Plus, props to any novelist in these days of fan service who dares to create a heroine who dislikes cats.)
Near the end of Velvet Was the Night, Elvis’ boss scolds him, then cruelly suggests that his word for the day ought to be pawn. Elvis and Maite are pawns, mere supporting characters in the minds of everyone else in the novel. The contrast between their grand, outdated yearnings and their sordid circumstances as a hired goon and a forgettable secretary lends the novel its classic noir piquancy. But the way that war—not a world war, but the Dirty War between the government and its restive citizens—keeps erupting into their lives, forcing them to confront the reality of history and politics, keeps the novel fresh; in contrast with classic noir, this war refuses to remain hidden. The delectable cocktail that is Velvet Was the Night contains a generous dash of bitters, but the finish is satisfyingly mellow. It goes down so smoothly that it left me marveling at what kind of sorceress Moreno-Garcia must be as she reworks genre after genre, weaving in Mexican history and culture, satisfying familiar cravings without resorting to mere pastiche. The most tantalizing suspense of all comes with wondering what she’ll do next.