Girl, You Make My Day

One of the things I’ve greatly enjoyed over the last few years has been the sea change in how publishing views works by non-white and non-straight authors; the push for more diverse voices in the publishing community has already borne wonderful fruit. I’ve been saying for years that the world of crime fiction was in danger of getting stale again, much as it did in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s; particularly the private eye novel. The arrival of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller on the scene shook things up and shook things out; the private eye novel got a much-needed shot in the arm of adrenaline with these three women and the others their work inspired; I strongly believe the move toward diversity is going to bear fruit in much the same manner–and it already has, frankly; the works of diverse writers like S. A. Cosby, Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, Alex Segura, Tracy Clark, Cheryl Head, and so many others have joined the great pioneers like Walter Mosley and the wonderful Barbara Neely to open up new perspectives on crime and crime fiction; our society and world; and again, this was desperately needed–and is necessary every so often, for our genre to refresh and expand and become more inclusive. We’re also seeing more queer books being sent out into the world from the big houses in New York, which is also incredibly exciting (another shout out to Yes Daddy By Jonathan Parks-Ramage and A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen).

It’s a very exciting time to be a fan of crime fiction.

Noir has always been one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction, and I always enjoy reading modern takes on it. I want to write more noir, quite frankly; Chlorine would be the first of at least four I want to write, if not more (for now, I have ideas for four of them, with Chlorine being the most full formed). I always enjoy modern takes on noir–Laura Lippman’s Sunburn was quite marvelous, as was Christa Faust’s Money Shot and Choke Hold)–and of course, S. A. Cosby is a master of rural Southern noir; both Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears are destined to be considered classics, I think.

So, I was very curious to read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s take on modern noir, Velvet Was the Night. It took me a very long time to finish–which is not indicative of the quality of the book, I hasten to add–because after I read so much during the post-Ida power outage, I kind of broke my brain and thus haven’t been able to really focus as much on reading as I would like; yesterday after the LSU game I sat down and finished it with Georgia-Kentucky on as background noise.

And what a fun ride it was.

He didn’t like beating people.

El Elvis realized this was ironic considering his line of work. Imagine that: a thug who wanted to hold his punches. Then again, life is full of such ironies. Consider Ritchie Valens, who was afraid of flying and died the first time he set foot on an airplane. Damn shame that, and the other dudes who died, Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” Richardson; they weren’t half bad either. Or there was that playwright Aeschylus. He was afraid of being killed inside his house, and then he steps outside and wham, an eagle tosses a tortoise at him, cracking his head open. Murdered, right there in the stupidest possible way.

Often life doesn’t make sense, and if Elvis had a motto it was that: life’s a mess. That’s probably why he loved music and factoids. They helped him construct a more organized world. When he wasn’t listening to his records, he was poring over the dictionary, trying to memorize a new word, or plowing through one of those almanacs full of stats.

No, sir. Elvis wasn’t like some of the perverts he worked with, who got excited smashing a dude’s kidneys. He would have been happy solving crosswords and sipping coffee like their boss, El Mago, and maybe one day he would be an accomplished man of that sort, but for now there was work to be done, and this time Elvis was actually eager to beat a few motherfuckers up.

He hadn’t developed a sudden taste for blood and cracking bones, no, but El Güero had been at him again.

The recent rise of Silvia Moreno-Garcia has been meteoric, although I am sure to her it has seemed anything but. I read her terrific vampire novel, Certain Dark Things, a while back, loved it, and have been following her career ever since as she has turned out novels at a terrific rate–Gods of Jade and Shadow, Untamed Shore, Mexican Gothic–all of which have been critically acclaimed and sold very well; I love that she bounces from genre to genre–horror to fantasy to crime; even bouncing around in the sub-categories of the crime genre. This is only my second read of her work–I have them all, of course–and had been meaning to get around to her take on noir with a Mexican flourish for quite some time. (I am really sorry I broke my brain with all the reading I did after the power went out; I greatly enjoyed this book, but it was so hard for me to focus for some reason…but am glad I sat down yesterday with the book, determined to finish it at last.)

One of the things that strikes me about Moreno-Garcia’s work is that I am seeing Mexico, a place I greatly love, through a fresh new perspective; like all Yanquis, I always view Mexico through the prism of a tourist. I’ve always wanted to write about Mexico, and have several short stories in the files that are set there (I did write one erotica story as Todd Gregory set in Acapulco; from the perspective of a tourist, of course: “Oh, What A Friend I Have in Jesus”)…but reading Moreno-Garcia makes me aware of how scant my knowledge of our Southern neighbor is–all of the counties south of the Rio Grande, frankly–which is a stinging indictment of our education system. (Don’t even get me started on the concept of Latin America vs. “America”) I know very little of Mexican history after the Spanish conquest, other than the Mexican War and the French empire set up under a Hapsburg by Napoleon III during our civil war. I know very little history of any of the countries that make up the rest of the American continents, really–and isn’t that more than a little bit disgraceful? I also know very little about their cultures, their politics, and what goes on there; a quick glance through the news also will show very little information or news being reported about those non-United States/Canada American countries, which is really a shame.

Velvet Was the Night is set un 1971, a particularly politically rife period in Mexico. The US was terribly concerned about communism being spread by the Soviets in what has always been considered the American soft underbelly–I mean, look at our reaction to Cuba–and there’s no question that CIA operatives and money were working to subvert Communism while supporting borderline Fascist governments because that was preferable to Washington than another potential Soviet satellite state in our hemisphere. The vast paranoia of that time–which really lasted from 1945-1990, really–cannot be underestimated or understated. By rooting her story in actual events of 1971–the crackdown of the Mexican government on dissidents–Moreno-Garcia slyly gives us a taste of how American foreign policy of the time affected everyone in Mexico, as well as a history lesson. (One of the great modern deceptions of our society is this idea that we always act benevolently as a nation; we’re doing this for your own good.) The book has two point of view characters; one, depicted in the opening above, is “Elvis”, a very young man who works as a thug, basically, for an oppressive group of anti-Communists that try to infiltrate dissident groups and haunt protests in order to make them turn violent, so the military can intervene on behalf of the “people.” Elvis grew up very poor and sometimes imagines what his life would be like if he were able to pursue his primary interests–educating himself and music. He doesn’t know what his future holds but is vaguely aware the path he is on–violence and more violence–will not end well. Over the course of the book he begins to question the values he’s been taught to believe in his gang, and begins to aspire to get out of it.

The other main character is Maite, a legal secretary barely getting by on her low salary and barely able to afford food. Her car has been in the shop unclaimed because she cannot afford the mechanics’ bill. She leads a lonely and solitary life, has a very vivid imagination and fantasy world she prefers to inhabit, colored strongly by her love of romance comic books and the music she likes to listen to. Maite’s lovely neighbor, Leonora, asks her to feed her cat while she is away, and when she agreed, Maite unknowingly enters the world of political struggle and upheaval. The riot depicted in the first chapter, that Elvis helps engineer? A friend of Leonora’s has taken pictures that prove that the riot was started by government forces, and those two rolls of film are the McGuffin everyone in the book is after–except poor innocent Maite, who, like any main character in a great Hitchcock film, becomes involved in something life threatening by simply agreeing to feed a neighbor’s cat–something she resents agreeing to do. When Leonora doesn’t come back, Maite starts looking for her–primarily motivated by the fact she can’t afford to keep feeding the car, and Leonora promised her money for feeding it–money she needs to get her car back. Motivated by her own poverty, Maite finds herself getting involved more and more in this clandestine world, and her own life is in danger soon.

The true strength of the book lies in the careful characterizations of both Elvis and Maite; two desperate people trapped by poverty in lives they want to escape, and the parallel journeys they both follow that lead their paths to cross; and the richness of the reality of what life in Mexico City was like during the turbulent time when the book is set. Moreno-Garcia shows us, as she did in Certain Dark Things, what the reality of life is like in one of the world’s largest cities, the reality the tourists rarely, if ever, get a chance to see. And while the hopelessness of both their situations seem unresolvable at times, the pacing is strong and the story construction so tight, and you the readers finds yourself rooting for them both to get out safely.

I really loved this book, and am sorry my inability to focus forced me to take so long to finish reading it. It’s extraordinary, and I recommend it highly.

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