Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2021 Velvet Was the Night is a noir historical novel.
Mexico’s governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party) has created a covert unit known as Los Halcones (the Hawks). Los Halcones’ mission: beat the shit out of anyone foolish enough to oppose the PRI and the institutions supporting it.
Despite his distaste for violence, Elvis works for the Hawks. Maite is an apolitical, unremarkable secretary, of no interest to the Hawks. There is no reason for the two to ever cross paths. No reason, that is, except for a hungry cat.
Disappointed in love, frequently reminded by her mother of her unmarried status, thirty-year-old Maite lives for her romance comics and dreams of a better life. Actual progress towards her dreams is negligible. No matter how firm her resolve to save money, she spends her secretary’s wages as fast as she earns them. Thank goodness for Secret Romance magazine and its enthralling adventures!
Maite does have one small quirk: a wee bit of kleptomania. To this end, she runs errands for the other occupants of her apartment building. Each favour grants her access to other people’s apartments and to their possessions. When next-door neighbour Leonora asks Maite to feed Leonora’s cat in Leonora’s absence, Maite agrees … for a very reasonable fee.
While Maite is a nobody, Leonora is very much on the Hawk’s radar. Leonora has in her possession a film whose contents could be very embarrassing for the Hawks. Their political support wavering in the wake of the El Halconazo, the Hawks — or rather, their leader, El Mago — are determined to avoid more setbacks. Elvis is assigned the task of tracking down Leonora and the film.
Leonora does not return to her apartment. This is a problem for Maite, who has no desire to feed Leonora’s cat for the rest of its life and who needs the money Leonora owes her. Therefore, the only reasonable course of action Maite can see is to track down Leonora, return the cat, and get paid. What could go wrong?
Unworldly Maite soon finds herself neck deep in student revolutionaries. She becomes a person of interest to government task forces no sensible Mexican ever wants to encounter. On the positive side, perhaps this will provide a meet-cute with a handsome young man. On the minus side, it could be the first step towards a shallow grave.
This novel provides prime, grade‑A MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is, as you know — oh, but other elements of the novel beckon.
Maite has no idea she is a character in a noir. Elvis has a much better idea what’s going on, but his experience as a reluctant hired brute has not prepared him to play secret agent. Consequently, what would have been a short story had Maite been a world-wise femme fatale or Elvis a highly trained spy is a full novel, as both are forced to acquire the necessary skills on the fly, while far more experienced agents work against them. This approach turns out to be an excellent way to discover one’s personal tolerance for savage beatings.
While their paths cross over and over again, Maite and Elvis interact indirectly for the most part. Too bad they did not meet earlier. In many respects the two were well-suited for each other from the start. They share a love of music and both have an impressive capacity for getting in over their heads. Both are, and this is important for novels like this, characters about whose fates the reader will care. Elvis isn’t a mindless brute (although he works with more than few) and Maite isn’t a witless kleptomaniac.
Based on historical events (as explained the author’s afterword), this book is a deftly told noir, filled with good intentions gone awry, flawed but lovable characters, irredeemable corrupt social institutions, double-crosses and of course brief flurries of extreme violence. While this novel is a stand-alone, as Moreno-Garcia’s novels generally are, this will likely inspire readers to seek out more of her books.