***Trigger warnings for gun violence, torture, beatings, police brutality and murder***
I love a good mystery. There’s something very enthralling in reading about those living on the edge of some big plot that they fell into uncovering all the while watching them go about their lives, almost like a fly on the wall. Noir as a whole has appealed to me because of that, but the difference here is this is one written by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. And that just makes it all the more wonderful.
1970s, Mexico City. Maite is a secretary who lives for one thing: the latest issue of Secret Romance. While student protests and political unrest consume the city, Maite escapes into stories of passion and danger.
Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies. When Leonora disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman—and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.
Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a shadowy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists. Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life: He loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ’n’ roll. But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he comes to observe Maite from a distance—and grows more and more obsessed with this woman who shares his love of music and the unspoken loneliness of his heart.
Now as Maite and Elvis come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume their lives, with hitmen, government agents, and Russian spies all aiming to protect Leonora’s secrets—at gunpoint.
There’s something very intimate about the way this book was written. I’ve not read huge amount of noir, especially some set against the very real Dirty War in Mexico. But I did feel what the author really achieved was giving us a private view into the lives of two people who to different levels, become entangled in the conflicts.
We follow both Maite and Elvis. Maite, a daydreaming woman entering her thirties has limited to no awareness of the world around her. She retreats to her own private fantasy world, living for each installment of her favourite comic, Secret Romance. She maintains a collection of imported records, different recordings of songs she could easily buy in Mexico. She keeps a pet bird and dreams of touring the Carribean. Meanwhile she also can’t afford to pay for her car the be repaired at the mechanic currently keeping it. Her bird’s cage is too small and kept closed by a piece of string. She steals from her neighbors and she is very lonely.
I felt for Maite a lot over this book. Granted, I imagine she is that kind of protagonist that will annoy many readers, especially her more flighty nature. But I can’t help but appreciate what she is trying to do. She is looking to make a better life for herself, she is making a go out there, much to her mother’s horror. She lives alone, she isn’t married and she has no interest in settling. But for only the fact this facade she puts up leads to her living far beyond her means. Her complete ignorance of the world outside leads her to getting caught up in more danger when she thinks her missing neighbour is nothing more than an exciting mystery from the pages of her romance comics.
This is a similar feeling I have toward Elvis, another hopeless romantic but one living right at the front of the Dirty War. Elvis works for the Hawks, a very historical and real paramilitary group charged with suppressing the insurrection of left wing student groups and protesters. El Mago, the man running Elvis’s cell of the Hawks is his idol. The tragedy of Elvis, a young man who chose the name of a rock star to escape his poor background. He also wants to make a name for himself, setting himself tasks of learning a new word every day, maintaining his appearance to the standard El Mago expects his Hawks to. All this in hope he can be like El Mago someday. Be his best. Out of the two leads, I had a stronger pull to him just mostly since compared to Maite, he had good instincts and despite worshiping his boss, he remained a little more skeptical. He asks after a colleague who he rushed to a hospital during an attack on a student rally, he gets told he is gone back to his family but he never gives up on his friend. Well at least the closest thing he has to one, and I just had to admire his tenacity.
The plot and pacing here are so expertly done, I ended up picking up Untamed Shore, Moreno-Garcia’s crime novel just looking for more of it. One thing I was struck by was how she created this atmosphere that lacked the tension I usually associate with similar stories and somehow made it mundane? Maite as a protagonist is going through the motions at all times and until at least the climax of the novel, is doing the same with Leonora’s disappearance and Elvis treats his tasks of commanding torture as just a day at the office. That to me is far more terrifying. The fact that these things could become a “new normal” almost, and this was happening up until 1982 is just horrifying and could only be handled this well by an author like this.
I really enjoyed this, it was my first non SFF read in a while and it was absolutely absorbing. If you wish to read any of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, this is the year for it with her novels of previous years coming back into publication and the right time of year to read Mexican Gothic upon us.
Thank you to Jo Fletcher Books for sending a copy of this in exchange for a review, Velvet Was the Night is out now. Thanks for checking in all! Happy reading!