A friend read Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s previous book, and complained that, while it was good, she wanted more Mexican culture. Not necessarily less gothic, just more of what the country feels like.
Well, Velvet was the Night has that. But it’s not the tourist-friendly Mexico. It’s the 1970s CIA-funded anti-communist groups fighting the student radicals who are protesting government corruption. The CIA is implicated from the top of the book. It’s clear that the situation is ugly and it’s the Americans’ fault.
This is the background to a classic thriller – there is undeveloped film that everyone is after. We’re following two of them: Elvis, a low-level agent known as a Hawk, one of the CIA funded groups, and Maite, a legal secretary who has been asked to take care of a neighbor’s cat and ends up mixed up with the student radicals when the neighbor doesn’t return. These two are wonderfully drawn characters. Elvis has a heart of gold and loves old movies and music. Maite is lonely and loves romance novels and records. You want to know what happens to them, from the beginning.
The plot is a little slower to get started. But the story takes off once everyone is pursuing the neighbor and her photos, which everyone seems to think will blow the roof off the current government. Will Elvis find the film? Will Maite ever get to give up taking care of the cat? Where is the neighbor anyway? You want to know what happens in the story, and more importantly, you want to know what happens to Elvis and Maite.
Velvet was the Night is a wonderful book, all noir and thriller, without ever being cold-hearted.
What do I know about gothic horror, given that I am not a horror fan? There’s usually a romantic element, both in the love meaning and in the over-the-top-emotions meaning of romantic. There’s usually a creepy house, and there’s often an ambiguous ending. Mexican Gothic has all three.
This was a gloriously spooky tale about a young woman, Noemí, who goes off to a country house owned by an English family to see what the hell is up with her cousin, Catalina, who recently married into the family. Catalina does not seem to be well. When Noemí arrives, she finds an odd family that lives on a very foggy hill and, well, it turns out that they’re eugenicists who think their pure English blood makes them somehow better than all of the Mexican people around them. But they’re incredibly inbred, so they need fresh blood and Catalina and Noemí are upper-class enough and exotically robust enough to be desirable. It’s exactly as icky and gross as you might expect.
It’s also a metaphor for European incursions into Mexico in the 1800s. Mexico got its independence from Spain in 1810, and a lot happened as it worked to become stable and settled and to get the government to work effectively for its citizens. In 1864, the powers that be actually brought over European royalty – Emperor Maximilian I – to rule the country. This didn’t work out well for anyone. (The Emperor was brought over from Austria by some conservatives who thought it would help them keep power over their people who were rebelling, the Emperor looked around and tried to actually make changes to help the people, which alienated his power base, which lead to his eventual capture and execution.)
You don’t need to know anything about Mexican history for the book to make sense though, and racism being the source of evilness hits home at the moment. Mexican Gothic is a good spooky season book, and I’d recommend it.