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'Black Minutes' Sheds Light On Corruption In Mexico

Corruption has been the life force of Mexico's political system for decades. Long before the present drug war that has left more than 10,000 people dead in just three years, the rule of law was routinely mocked by officials in just about every level of Mexico's government. As an attorney general was quoted as saying in Alan Riding's best-selling book, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, "Wherever you put your finger, pus comes out."

In his tightly written, surprisingly lyrical noir novel, The Black Minutes, Mexican author Martin Solares works within this grim given. In his story about the investigation of a journalist murdered in a fetid town in the Gulf state of Tamaulipas, he makes the paranoia-inducing duplicity of Chinatown seem picayune. Nobody can be trusted in Paracuan: not any of the police, not any of the politicians. Factor in the rule of the drug cartel and the brazenness of local criminals, and it's a perilous world for any cop -- for any citizen -- with the integrity to do the right thing.

The Black Minutes segues from the murder of a newspaperman to the supposedly resolved slayings of some young girls back in the '70s. There's a sinister connection between them, as police detective Ramon Cabrera, a quiet, self-identified "pacifist," is finding out. There's also a connection, Solares implies, between Mexico's troubles today and the systemic brutality and graft perfected under President Luis Echeverria some decades ago.

That era of bell bottoms and revolution is playfully and disturbingly portrayed in the travails of Vicente Rangel, a hippie-looking policeman who used to be a guitarist for a famous pop star before going into his beloved uncle's line of work. It falls to Rangel to make sense of the ritual dismemberment of these girls, all while trying to stay out of the way of his colleagues' agendas -- and fists.

The beauty of The Black Minutes is how Solares imbues art into an awful reality. The hard-boiled elements of a straight-ahead police procedural are here, but so are tender passages wherein an elderly B. Traven (author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is also set in Tamaulipas) holds court, and fantastical ones, such as when a pre-eminent Mexico City criminologist can't shake a man in black who's been tailing him since he's agreed to look into the murder of the girls.

Then there's the novel's poetry. At one point, Rangel goes on a long, fateful drive out of Paracuan. Here's how Solares portrays the passing landscape, and in doing so captures the spiritual rot overwhelming his characters: "A flattened red-neck vulture with black feathers on the side of the road; a pack of wild dogs fighting over the remains of a sheep run over by a car. ... A sad little stream full of leaves and fallen tree trunks, a row of weeping willows with their branches covered in moss."

It's a thrill to read a novel that marries literary craftsmanship to a riveting crime story. And it's a small joy to see art made out of such bleak times.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.