Having really enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s novel, Mexican Gothic, I ordered Velvet Was the Night excitedly, hopeful for another arresting story that was gripping from the start. Unfortunately, that was not what I got from this book. It took me much longer to get into it, and I may have set myself up for disappointment since I was holding it up to Mexican Gothic. It took me several days to finish this book, which isn’t the case with a book I am actively enjoying, I can usually burn through a 300-400 page book in two days. The story was also pretty difficult to follow, there were many character names and events and locations, all of which I found hard to keep track of. A few times I had to go back to the beginning to understand the inciting incident, because I kept getting lost towards the middle. Also a lot of loose ends that never really got tied up in the end.
Set during 1970s Mexico during a time of political unrest, protests, and a fraught change in the presidential regime, the book introduces us to two main characters – Maite and Elvis. I have mentioned this is a previous book review, but I am growing pretty weary of a narrative trope I have seen repeatedly in books that are of the thriller, mystery genre. Maite is a 30 year old, down on her luck, single secretary who has a bad relationship with her mom and sister, is bad at her job and whose only character traits seem to be that she loves shitting on other women in order to make herself feel better about her self perceived short comings. She’s also classist. And this is a personal gripe that I will express here – the choice authors have been making to have their female protagonist basically come off not only as a “sad sack,” but also very unlikeable has been tiring. I’m not saying that female protagonists have to be perfect, plucky, strong, independent women with not a care in the world, but I would like to see less female protagonists in thrillers that are miserable with themselves and therefore projecting that misery onto everyone around them. Give me a fully formed, detailed and developed woman, not one who is not moping around because her hook-up left her for another woman who she perceives as “hotter” and more deserving, it’s honestly giving incel (femcel?) at this point. Anyways…
Elvis (not his real name) is a street thug who works for El Mago (The Magician), a notorious gangster type who basically has his goon squad (The Hawks) do the dirty work for corrupt Mexican politicians. Elvis is a more fleshed out character than Maite. We learn that from a young age he was always a rebel who tried to figure out ways to make a quick buck by hustling. After getting kicked out of his mother’s house and dropping out of school, he basically traveled from place to place finding work or flipping stolen goods to make money until one day crossing paths with El Mago and his brute squad, who were destroying street vendor tables at the request of a nameless politician. El Mago sees Elvis as a perfect mentee, and he in turn becomes a Hawk.
How do Maite and Elvis cross paths? Well, Maite’s neighbor Leonora asks her if she can watch her cat while she has to travel out of town for a few days. Maite begrudgingly agrees (she dislikes Leonora because she goes on dates and is pretty) but is sure to charge Leonora an outrageous rate to watch her cat. So guess what happens after that…Leonora disappears and Maite has no idea how to get in contact with her to give her back her cat. On the other side of town, Elvis has just gotten his latest job from El Mago – find Leonora, who has been missing for several days, as she is in possession of photos that may ruin the campaign for the incumbent president. How does El Mago have this intel? Doesn’t matter, it just needs to get done. Maite and Elvis are now both on the hunt for Leonora, and the events that follow I wish were more memorable enough to write in this review but they aren’t.
As I said before, this book was a very disappointing follow up to one of my favorite books from of the past year. I hope to see better work from Moreno-Garcia, but when it comes to Velvet Was the Night, my recommendation is you can skip this.