I used to pet sit fairly regularly for co-workers and friends. It was a fun way to meet new critters and the pocket money was always appreciated. Thankfully, none of my pet-sitting gigs ever turned into the deadly, bewildering ride protagonist Maite Jaramillo finds herself on in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night. Near the beginning of this thriller, Maite’s neighbor asks her to feed her cat while she’s away for a few days. The neighbor then disappears, landing Maite right in the middle of student protesters, menacing government officials, and a paramilitary group that specializes in cracking dissident heads.
Maite is thirty when Velvet Was the Night opens, sometime in the early 1970s and somewhere in Mexico City. She has her own apartment and a killer record collection, but those are about the only things she has going for her. She has no love life to speak of (although she makes things up for her coworkers), a dead-end job for a lawyer with unspeakably smelly feet, no friends, few hobbies, and a car being held hostage at the mechanics. Meanwhile, Elvis works for El Mago as a member of the Hawks. He goes where El Mago tells him and does whatever dirty work he’s been ordered to, although he loathes his cohorts and their machismo. Like Maite, Elvis (his pseudonym) is stuck in a dead end—neither of them has the education for anything better than what they’re doing, not the ambition to try and get out of their current situations. That said, they’re both aware enough to know that there is more in the world to want than what they have.
Shortly after Maite agrees to feed her neighbor’s cat, Elvis gets the word from El Mago to follow Maite. Since the neighbor is gone, Maite is the Hawk’s best chance to recover incriminating photos taken by the neighbor. Maite has no clue about these photos initially, at least until she learns more about the neighbor’s dissident activities and realizes that she’s being followed. Those photos are a great McGuffin. No one seems to know what’s on them; all anyone knows is that they could be explosive if they were made public. The Hawks want them. The Dirección Federal de Seguridad (Federal Security Directorate) wants them. People who have ties to the Hawks and the DFS want them. The student dissidents want them. Everyone comes out of the woodwork to get Maite and those photos.
Because we readers are tagging along with both Maite and Elvis, we get the see events in stereo. It’s only near the very end that Maite and Elvis meet properly. The dual narratives gave me the curious feeling of being the hunter and the hunted at the same time. The dual narratives also turned out to be a very clever way to dole out information about motives, conspiracies, counter-conspiracies, and all the other machinations going on in Velvet Was the Night. While Elvis is learning more about all the people after Maite and developing doubts about El Mago, Maite learns just how illusory her world of respectabilty really is—and we get a fast dive into life during what is now known as the Mexican Dirty War.
My education was woefully lacking when it came to Mexican (and Canadian, for that matter) history, politics, literature, etc., etc. As I read about Maite’s perils—and the parallel narrative featuring one of those paramilitary thugs—I had to hop over to Wikipedia more than once to learn more about the Mexican Dirty War, Luis Echeverría, and the Tlatelolco Massacre. Funny enough, my lack of knowledge about Mexican politics matched up with Maite’s, since she never reads the news. I know that my preference for learning about the world and its history through fiction isn’t ideal (but fight me!), but books like Velvet Was the Night make history a lot more entertaining and somehow more real. When I read historical fiction, characters come to life and navigate their way through complex realities in a way that I think even the best nonfiction falls short of. The characters of Velvet Was the Night remind me that all of those people we read about (or, more likely, are glossed over) in history texts are real people, with personal failings and dumb luck, who mostly just want to grab a bit of comfort and happiness for themselves before it’s all over.