The Black Minutes by Martín Solares – A Review of a Mexican Noir

New Year's Cartoon from La Jornada

The Black Minutes
Martín Solares
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 .

More on Mexican Noir and the Black Minutes

The Quarterly Conversation tipped me off to this review at the Nation written by the Translator Natasha Wimmer about the Black Minutes from Martín Solares. I’ve mentioned this book before and I continue to be intrigued by it. I think I will have to read it soon (and turn my gaze from Spain back to Mexico). Considering the troubles in Mexico the book seems timely, which may also be why it has been translated. Along with her praise of the book Wimmer gives some context to Mexican Noir, which is a new phenomenon, something that surprised me since I’m so used to the noir genre, even its imports from abroad. I wonder, though, if anyone can name noir works from Latin America as I’m at a loss at the moment?

Depending on how you look at it, the noir novel is either perfectly suited to Mexico or beside the point. It’s hard to imagine a plot that somehow encompasses the August massacre of seventy-two migrants in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, for example, or the Zacatecas jailbreak in late May when fifty-three inmates simply walked out of their cells. The scale of real-life crime is such that it dwarfs the classic private eye and makes him irrelevant.

And yet Martín Solares’s first novel, The Black Minutes, an uncommonly nuanced neo-noir—set, as it happens, in Tamaulipas—may be exactly the right book to read at the end of 2010, a particularly dark year in recent Mexican history. It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what…we are supposed to publish or not publish…. You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.


Martín Solares’ Mexican Noir Novel Reviewed at NY Times

Martín Solares novel The Black Minutes was reviewed by the NY Times. It is a positive review and for a crime novel it sounds a little atypical. Perhaps one of the reasons it was translated was it has a sense of the urgent with characters involved in the drug trade and corruption, something that is plaguing Mexico. While I don’t read much crime fiction, done right it can transcend the genre and become a report on its times. Considering Jorge Volpi’s call for a more committed literature, perhaps this novel is a good example in the Mexican context.

The best detective novels are those that go beyond the limitations of genre and a specific story to limn the broader society in which they take place. Mr. Solares does that in a profound but entertaining fashion here, revealing the surprising subterranean linkages that give politicians, the police, labor unions, drug cartels, the Roman Catholic Church, business interests and sectors of the press an interest in covering up the truth of the two cases.

To that end he makes especially effective and clever use of the separate time frames, one of whose purposes is to show how chronic, endemic corruption erodes the desire and ability of the individual to do the right thing, or even to act at all. Current-day Paracuán’s duplicitous police chief, Joaquín Taboada, is thus shown as a young, somewhat bumbling officer in the 1970s with the hilarious nickname El Travolta. There is also Fritz Tschanz, an immigrant Jesuit priest who knows so much and has heard so many sordid confessions over the years that his world-weariness has paralyzed him.

Over all it sounds good, but I’m not sure what ethnic types he is talking about:

But Mr. Solares is a graceful, even poetic, writer, especially in his hard-boiled dialogue and his descriptions of the wildly varied landscapes and ethnic types of northern Mexico. Though the world of “The Black Minutes” is one to inspire fear and revulsion, Mr. Solares’s descriptions of it are oddly beautiful and fascinating in the same way that overturning a rock and observing the maggots beneath can be a perversely edifying spectacle.