The Black Minutes
Black Cat 2010, pg 436
If you’ve read anything about Mexico in the last few years then you know something about The Black Minutes by Martín Solares. The Black Minutes is one of a growing trend of crime novels that, in some ways, are replacing the novel of the cacique as the literary image of Mexico. I know there are plenty of other novels written in Mexico, but the Black Minutes reflects a moment in Mexican history that is wracked with incredible violence and corruption and it only makes sense for Mexican authors to turn to that theme. The question, though, with such overwhelming violence and mind-numbing numbers of disappearances how does a fiction writer address the subject without seeming shrill or a journalist with a few obscured details? Can a novelist make compelling fiction without falling into polemics? Of course that assumes the goal of the writer is to make compelling, entertaining, or what every adjective you want to use that suggests there is an artistic end to the novel. Solares has decided not to write directly about a specific event—the femicides in Juarez—but create his own version of Juarez, a smaller, more manageable one, that exists both in the past and in the now. It is a strategy that makes for a good novel, not just a good crime novel, which it most certainly is, and Solares’s skills as a writer move it beyond genre.
The Black Minutes opens in the present with the brutal murder of a journalist. It is a resonant crime ripped, as one might say, from the headlines. A crusty old policeman, El Maceton, is put on the case. Little by little he follows the footsteps of the late journalist as he gets closer and closer to what had happened. Along the way he interviews people who tell him to stay away from it all, that it isn’t worth it. Chief among them is a Jesuit priest who knows more than he is willing to say, but gives the story an already sinister edge of coverups and corruption. Paralleling the story is the constant powerlessness of Meceton in the face of the crime boss’s son who continually threatens him because he took away his gun. Meceton, a man who’d rather watch TV than have sex, is the typical middle aged civil servant, tired, getting headaches when ever there’s trouble around. Just as Maceton is getting close to finding out what happened the crime boss’s son rams his car a few times, before he is killed in traffic.
At this point the story goes back 30 years to follow Vincente Rangel, a failed rock musician and nephew of a long time detective for the police department of Paracuán, Tamaulipas. At first Rangel is just a rookie—intern might be a better word—who follows his uncle around to get on the job training. He has no formal training, no one does, nor does he have a gun. He is part of a police force that works through favors, friendships, and bribes. When the bodies of mutilated and murdered school girls start to appear around town, his uncle is given the task of finding the killer. It falls to Vincente when his uncle dies of a heart attack. As the story unfolds, the level of corruption and old-boy-networking that goes on makes it almost impossible to find who the killer is. Rangel is constantly dealing with people in his own force who want to stop him, with the seemingly endless number of judicial agencies that want him to stop, local officials who what something to happen as long as it doesn’t snare one of their people. And the police force is completely inept, made up of untrained lifers like his uncle, who most are just in the business to get bribes, and the unofficial helpers that each cop has and who they pay to do some of the grunt work, including bringing them coffee. Yet Rangel some how is able to figure it out and more amazing, perseveres in the hunt despite the ever present threats. Just as Rangel is about to bring the killer in, the story switches to the present and Solares wraps the story up tiddly, closing all the chapters where he left a character hanging.
One of Solares’s strengths is the ability to weave this story of corruption and lies through the two different time periods and leave each section unanswered until the very end. The sense of mystery and dread that that evokes through out the novel starts just the background fear surrounding any crime and grows as Rangel and Maceton find themselves, in typical detective fashion, the lone forces of good. But the real power in the novel is his depiction of the chaotic town of Paracuán as a reflection of a larger Mexico. Readers can be forgiven if they begin to think at some point, it’s a wonder anything gets done in Mexico. Solares’s depiction of every last member of society as somehow corrupt begins to wear the reader down until all that is left is the same foreboding that runs through out the novel: any second I could get it. Yet the Rangel and Maceton don’t succumb and despite the terror that runs throughout the book, and its antecedents in the press, there is some sort of hope still there.
The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi (one of Solares’s friends according to the acknowledgements page) has said more writers should create political novels, novels that meet the actual. The Black Minutes is one of those few cases where the political—and how a society deals with crime is political—and the novelistic are perfectly tuned.
P.S if you want to feel better about Mexico you might try listening to this interview about Mexico City here .