Book Reviews

Masterful Intrigue with Vintage Tunes: Book Review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night

Readers of the bestseller Mexican Gothic are sure to flock to Velvet Was the Night, the latest work by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Her seventh novel is a masterful historical noir that delivers mystery, romance, and plenty of vintage tunes.

Set in 1971 Mexico City, the novel is prefaced by a confidential telegram issued by the United States Department of State. The telegram acknowledges the existence of the Hawks, a paramilitary group established in 1968 to control leftist and anti-government student protesters. What follows is Moreno-Garcia’s fictional account that blends together the lives of the Hawks, a student activist art collective, and Maite, a lonely secretary working in a law office.

The plot centers around the disappearance of Leonora, a wealthy student activist, and the hunt undertaken to find her. Nearly everyone in the novel seeks Leonora for different reasons and thus their lives intersect. In a recent interview, Moreno-Garcia said she opted for noir because it’s a genre that doesn’t require a complex plot. Instead, it centers on the human condition. Her aim was to explore the political protests in Mexico through characters with distinct interests and perspectives.

The Hawks aren’t the only thugs in the novel. In fact, quite a few paramilitants surface as the search for Leonora escalates. Some groups are tied to the government while others have a more nebulous origin. What the government claims to fear are communists and students sympathetic to communist ideologies. The novel includes a Russian character named Arkady, who can’t so easily be labeled as either good or evil. That is the case for a handful of the characters in Velvet Was the Night. Moreno-Garcia understands that when placed in difficult situations, people’s decisions often surprise themselves and others.

The novel delivers tension and intrigue. It’s natural while reading to mentally leap ahead and try to figure out how things will end, what side will prevail. Some conclusions won’t surprise readers, but it’s likely some will. The web of lives in the novel is a fun tangle that only fully becomes clear at the end.

Readers who connect with Velvet Was the Night might expect the author’s other novels to be in the same vein. Moreno-Garcia is known for straddling different genres with each of her books and often decolonizing traditional stories. Her previous work has been categorized as sci-fi, fantasy, historical and speculative fiction, horror, and gothic. Moreno-Garcia is such a master storyteller that readers will likely find themselves following her into genres they would have normally shunned.

One of the author’s strongest skills is evoking moods. In Velvet Was the Night, it’s easy to be romanced and lulled into the coziness of Maite’s apartment as she listens to vinyl records. Music is a main character in the novel. It binds people together through a love of Elvis and romantic classics, but it’s also a political statement. Moreno-Garcia tells us in the afterword that her music playlist was deliberate and that in the 1960s the Mexican government approved “singing cafes” that would play “harmless covers of American songs.”

The mood of the novel isn’t created through music alone. As the evocative cover art suggests, several characters smoke cigarettes and they often find themselves smoking in the rain. Rain-streaked windows and the song “Blue Velvet” encapsulate the noir mood. The author strikes a stunning balance of tense, action scenes with mellow, interior scenes where characters are lonely or questioning their next move. Moreno-Garcia’s ability to end each chapter so deftly leaves the reader hungry for more, making Velvet Was the Night a quick, propulsive read.

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of the novels Velvet Was the NightMexican GothicGods of Jade and Shadow, and a bunch of other books. She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters).

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