'Black Minutes' Sheds Light On Corruption In Mexico

The Black Minutes
The Black Minutes
By Martin Solares
Paperback, 416 pages
Black Cat/Grove
List price: $14

Read An Excerpt

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.

Martin Solares i i

hide captionMartin Solares was born in Mexico and now lives in Paris where he is studying for his doctorate.

Vesta Monica Herrerias
Martin Solares

Martin Solares was born in Mexico and now lives in Paris where he is studying for his doctorate.

Vesta Monica Herrerias

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.

Excerpt: 'The Black Minutes'

The Black Minutes
The Black Minutes
By Martin Solares
Paperback, 416 pages
Black Cat/Grove
List price: $14

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

Today he had the impression he was entering another reality, the epicenter of fear. To distract himself from such macabre thoughts, he turned on the radio, where the announcer was suggesting it was the Martians overheating the earth: "First they're gonna finish off the ozone layer and deforest the planet, and then they're gonna melt the ice cap at the North Pole and flood the cities. Their plan is to mercilessly extinguish the human race." Fucking Martians, he thought, they must be putos.

As he passed the Tiberius Bar he slowed down to see if El Travolta was there, but no luck. Fucking fat ass, he thought, and to top it all off he's going be mad at me.

He took the Boulevard del Puerto to Avenida del Palmar and only had to stop for the light at the Texas Curve, and since there was a tractor trailer in front of him and he had no siren, he had no way of making himself heard. OK, he told himself, I can wait a second. Honestly, he didn't want to take on this job and he still held out hope that El Chicote would find El Travolta and he'd be relieved of the investigation. Thirty seconds later he felt sure it wouldn't happen that way, at least not right away. There was no way out of this situation. Who cares? he thought. Let the fat ass get mad, so what. One more stripe on the tiger.

He looked at the enormous billboard for Cola Drinks, with a woman picking up a glass of petroleum-colored liquid overflowing with ice. While he waited for the light to change, like the good anti-imperialist he was, he thought mean things about the company and even about the model in the ad. Fucking gringo assholes and fucking bitch in hot pants, she must be a big whore. Every time he saw a cola drink he associated it with the war in Vietnam, the tension in the Middle East, the Cold War, the fall of Salvador Allende in Chile. Since he'd joined the police force, these explosions of overt rancor had become less frequent, but they persisted. His internationalist conscience wouldn't die. But there had to be some explanation for that stuff about the girl found dead.

He reached the Bar Leon in ten minutes — back then, you could traverse the whole city in half an hour — and as he approached, he recognized Dr. Ridaura's car, which meant Ramírez would be there, too. In the mornings they gave classes in chemistry and biology at the Jesuits' school; in the afternoons, or in case of an emergency, they were the only forensics specialists in the city.

Strangely, the forensic expert, Ramirez, was waiting for him in the street. He looked seasick and his eyes were red. This guy can't take anything, Rangel thought. Looks like whatever he saw made an impression on him.

"Finished?"

"Getting some air."

"Hurry up, because the ambulance is coming," he ordered, and added, as a large group of curious onlookers was forming, "Open a space in front of the door. Don't let anyone in or out."

Before he could take another step, Ramirez confessed. "Mr. Rangel?"

"Yes?"

"The manager let one individual leave."

Rangel nodded. "An individual? The manager? I'm going to see that asshole right now. Fuck him for obstruction of justice."

He was about to resume walking but the voice of intuition stopped him. He knew Ramirez well enough to know he was hiding something.

"Do you know who it was?" Rangel guessed he did, judging by the forensic specialist's hesitation.

"It was Jack Williams. He was with his secretary and four gringos."

Son of a whore! An influential person. He didn't like dealing with influential people, and the person who'd left without waiting for them was the son of the richest man in the port, owner of the local Cola Drinks bottling plant. Ramirez was sweating, and it wasn't on account of the 103 degree in-the-shade heat.

"Where's the body?"

"At the back, in the bathroom. The doctor is there."

When he stepped through the doorway he had to wait a minute to get used to the dark. Three dark shapes approached him, with each step a little less blurry; the manager must be the one with the biggest potbelly. No need to pull out his badge — there never was, and much less now; nobody wanted to be in that place.

The manager's name was Lucilo Rivas. Rangel recognized him immediately; he'd seen him many times at a distance, whenever he went to the bar as a customer. He always wore tight-fitting light-colored suits, at least one size too small. Seeing him, the manager made it obvious he recognized him as a regular customer. It was like he was saying: Well, damn, I didn't know he was a detective. They called him La Cotorra, the Chatterbox, but today he was keeping his mouth shut. Oh, goddamnit, Rangel said to himself, this asshole is going to give us a hard time.

"Is everyone here?"

"If they'd left without paying, I would have noticed."

"That's what we're going to find out. Do you have all of today's receipts?"

The manager's expression changed. There you go, thought Rangel, he didn't like that one bit.

"We just opened."

"Don't dick me around. No way they took their checks with them. You must have some record."

More taciturn than ever, the manager pulled opened a drawer and turned over the receipts. Rangel took the one on top and found what he was looking for. Junior had paid with a credit card:

Cola Drinks Group — Paracuan

John Williams, Jr.

Assistant General Manager

Rangel didn't have a credit card. If he couldn't even get to the end of the month with money in his pocket, how could he afford one? For him the cards were like titles of nobility, glimmers of an impossible country, a dream as remote as a Ford in your future.

"What?" The voice of the manager had broken his concentration.

"I said I let him go because he was in such a hurry. He was with some gringo investors, and he had to show them around the city."

Rangel shook his head. "You and I are going to continue this conversation. What you did is enough for me to haul you in. . . . I'll take this." He took the receipts. "Who found her?"

The bartender gestured toward a young man who looked like a bureaucrat, seated at the bar, pale as a ghost. "Oh, man," said Rangel, "he's going to faint."

As usual, Raul Silva Santacruz had gone to have lunch at the Bar Leon at two on the dot. Every third day, he came with two colleagues during the hour when they gave away free food; he'd order one or two beers and in exchange they'd serve him a dried shrimp caldo, crab or pork tacos, or a guisado with rice. On the 17 of March, 1977, he finished his two beers, shared one last dumb joke with his friends, and went to urinate. It was 2:40. Although the bar had urinals in back, usually flooded miasmas, Silva Santacruz preferred to go through the door behind the bar and use the other, better-ventilated, bathroom. It was a room with white tiled walls about four meters high, a rectangular communal urinal, and two stalls, each with a toilet, illuminated by a large window. That day, as he stepped toward the urinal, Raul Silva Santacruz noticed an object on the floor in front of one of the stalls. He remembered the homeless guys who hung around the plaza and thought, Fuckin' bums, they just come in here to make a mess. It was normal for vagrants to come into the bar to use the bathrooms and then leave behind their soda bottles, french-fry cartons, and the needles they used to shoot up. He was about to lower his zipper when he noticed that the discarded object was a tiny shoe. He lifted his gaze a few inches and discovered, just inside the stall door, a little kid's foot poking out.

What he found caused a nervous breakdown. Although the bartender served him a shot of liquor in a tequila glass, his movements remained slow and swaying, as if he were following the rhythms of a waltz. Rangel would have preferred that the witness not drink, but he couldn't reprimand him: if he weren't on duty he would have had a shot of rum, too. He didn't like the job that lay ahead of him one bit, but there was no avoiding it.

Excerpted from The Black Minutes by Martin Solares. Copyright 2006 by Martin Solares. Translation copyright 2010 by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker. Reprinted by permission of Black Cat.

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