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.
Solares evokes the impasse of the struggle against crime in Mexico with an ingenious device: a story that begins in the present day and skips back to the 1970s. The novel opens on a bus traveling south through Tamaulipas down to the gulf coast port city of Paracuán (a k a Tampico). When the bus is pulled over by some cops in pickups, a young reporter (drinking yogurt and reading St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises—what hope does he have?) is escorted off and seems likely to come to an unfortunate end. As it happens, however, he is rescued by his seatmate, a man he takes for a gun-toting rancher but who happens to be El Macetón, otherwise known as Agent Ramón Cabrera of the Paracuán Municipal Police.
Cabrera is the first of Solares’s two detectives, and like the classic noir hero, he’s a gruff, reluctant avenger of wrongs. So when he’s summoned to the chief’s office and assigned to a case belonging to a co-worker who already holds a grudge against him, he’s far from content. And when he gets a look at the dead man, he knows things have gone from bad to worse: "Damnation, it can’t be, he thought, it’s the kid with the yogurts."
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As Cabrera investigates further, he learns that Bernardo Blanco, the young reporter, had been working on a story about a series of crimes committed in 1977. Four young girls were found dead over the course of several months, and the killer, dubbed the Jackal by the local papers, was eventually determined to be a delivery truck driver named René Luz de Dios López. But as Cabrera discovers from newspaper research full of ’70s marginalia ("In the movie theaters, 007’s Live and Let Die, Papillon, The Exorcist, El santo oficio by Arturo Ripstein, and El llanto de la tortuga with Hugo Stiglitz"), the bodies of girls kept turning up even after René Luz de Dios López was locked away.
* * *
Just as Cabrera is making some progress—and just as the reader is growing fond of him—Solares cuts away to what turns out to be the real story he has to tell, which is that of Vicente Rangel, another reluctant cop and the original detective on the case of the 1977 killings. Rangel’s former career as a guitarist for crooner Rigo Tovar is betrayed by his Sergeant Pepper mustache and sideburns, and also by an inconvenient sensitivity that makes the palms of his hands crack and bleed when he’s under pressure. His refuge is an old wooden house a ferry trip away from the city, where he lies in his hammock listening to music and drinking.
As the reader adjusts to the temporal shift, correspondences reveal themselves: Cabrera’s boss, Chief Taboada, was once Rangel’s cocky young nemesis, nicknamed El Travolta, and many of Cabrera’s other colleagues are also Rangel’s. In fact, it later becomes clear that Cabrera must have worked at the office at the same time as Rangel, but he goes unmentioned in Rangel’s story. The effect is curious and satisfying. Since we already have some idea of where the characters end up, we seem to glimpse their fates in their earlier actions. This creates a general sense of foreboding: the knowledge that El Travolta becomes police chief and that Rangel is nowhere to be seen when Cabrera takes up the thread of the story sheds a grim light on Rangel’s narrative.
Like Cabrera, Rangel finds himself assigned to a case that belongs to someone else: this time, the vindictive El Travolta. On a day when El Travolta is late to work, Rangel is called to a downtown restaurant to investigate the death of a 9-year-old girl whose body has been dismembered and dumped in a bathroom stall. She’s the second girl to be found, and the bodies of two more soon turn up. All are covered with the remnants of their school uniforms and marked with a three-letter acronym. For a while, Rangel flounders, drifting in a sea of memories and atmospheric flashbacks.
Solares has a weakness for period detail that can occasionally seem gratuitous, but his sympathetic evocation of the late 1970s is one of the strengths of the book, as is his depiction of the city of Paracuán/Tampico, his hometown. The novel is steeped in the baking heat of un-air-conditioned cars, and Cola Drinks billboards loom everywhere over the city ("a woman picking up a glass of petroleum-colored liquid overflowing with ice"). One of the weirdest and most memorable episodes in the book involves a cameo by the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (the movie version of which was partly filmed in Tampico), who tells Rangel a story about a wealthy man who turns into a tiger by night and preys on his employees. This man is a scion of the Williams family, owners of the Cola Drinks empire. And as it turns out, Jack Williams, the son of the current Williams kingpin, is a prime suspect in the killings of the girls.
Reveries are stripped away, however, when Rangel wakes up from a dream with a hunch that leads him out of Paracuán and into the barren country north of the port and south of the border. Look at a map of present-day Mexico and you’ll see that this is still an area of few roads, carved up into ranchos, the ranching estates of the powerful. This is the territory of the Tamaulipas massacre, a vast no man’s land where druglords hold sway. In Solares’s novel, the men in power are different, but the lawless atmosphere is the same. It’s at this point in the novel when desperation gives way to hopelessness, and when it becomes evident that just because a crime is solved, a happy ending doesn’t necessarily follow.
* * *
Mexico has always been a mecca of noirish atmosphere: it’s the place, after all, where American noir movie antiheroes so often end up. Think of Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil or Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. Yet noir is also a quintessentially American genre, so that homegrown Mexican noir (especially early on) can often seem a curious hybrid of hard-boiled clichés and local themes and settings. The history of Mexico’s noir is generally believed to begin with the 1969 novel El Complot Mongol (The Mongol Conspiracy), by Rafael Bernal. At first, the novel seems to echo The Manchurian Candidate, published a decade earlier. A Chinese plot to assassinate the US president on a visit to Mexico has been discovered, and Bernal’s detective, Filiberto García, is assigned to assist a team of CIA and KGB agents. But the purported international intrigue is gradually revealed to be a cover-up for local corruption. Under the guise of guarding against foreign machinations, García’s bosses are plotting to kill the Mexican president.
El Complot Mongol isn’t available in English, which is too bad, because it’s a surprisingly crisp and moving exemplar of the genre, despite Chinese-Mexican dialogue of the "flied lice" variety. Startlingly, it links the 1910 Mexican Revolution with the 1960s underworld (García fought in the Revolution as a young man); it’s as if Bonnie and Clyde were to confess that they learned to shoot in the ranks of the Union Army. As García says, "Killing isn’t a job that takes up much of your time these days…. During the Revolution it was a different story, but I was a boy then." Killing during the war was something like a noble vocation (though even that is questionable); now it’s simply a job. And since it takes up less of García’s time, it allows more room for reflection—not a good thing from García’s point of view.
The novel borrows the stylings and brand-name trappings of American noir (García wears "colonia Yardley" and has Sears furniture in his apartment), but it is decidedly Mexican in context and geography. Mexico City, which will become the setting of much classic Mexican noir, is García’s home base, and there is a tint of fatalism to García’s reflections, an attitude that seems to owe more to Octavio Paz’s typology of Mexican malaise in The Labyrinth of Solitude—the sense (so often borne out by Mexican history) that defeat is foreordained and victimhood inevitable—than to American hard-boiled stoicism. García isn’t an independent operator by choice. He would prefer simply to take orders from his superiors, but his superiors repeatedly let him down. In a brilliant scene toward the end of the novel, he forces a crooked politician to kill his crony, just to teach him how it feels to kill.
Despite some serious moments, El Complot Mongol is a light read, more camp than chiaroscuro. Operating in this same vein is Mexico’s best-known contemporary noir writer, Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Taibo is one of the few writers of Mexican noir (if not the only one) who’s been extensively translated, and many of his novels are available in English, including several from a series featuring private detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, a one-eyed sleuth with a past defined (like Taibo himself) by the ’60s student uprisings. Taibo’s novels are desultorily plotted, and Shayne has a hangdog vanity that may put some readers off; but Taibo’s quirkiness isn’t just boilerplate, and his reflections are often charming and unexpected.
Just as Latin American writers tend to be more politically engaged than their US counterparts, Mexican noir tends to be more political than American noir. Taibo represents an extreme in this regard. He co-wrote one novel, The Uncomfortable Dead, with the masked rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos (they alternated chapters), and he is the author of a work of nonfiction titled 68, about the Tlatelolco student massacre in Mexico City in 1968, in which he gives a firsthand account of the democratic passions of the 1960s and describes how hopes were crushed when some 200 protesting students were killed by undercover military police. He is also an organizer of his own colleagues (he runs an annual crime fiction festival in Spain and is the editor of the collection Mexico City Noir, recently published in the United States) and an occasional spokesman for them. It was he who coined the term "neo-policíaca" (or "neo-noir"). By this, he explains, he means a kind of fiction that meshes classic noir with the "recurring theme of the problems of the State as a generator of crime, corruption, and political arbitrariness."
By this standard Solares is also a neo-noir writer, but The Black Minutes otherwise has little to do with Taibo’s tongue-in-cheek diversions. His double narrative may be spotted with a few holes and lacunas, but the general impact of the plot is stunning. His characters simultaneously move toward resolution and the void, each success paradoxically dragging them down. Every time Rangel tracks down a key witness or uncovers a critical clue, he’s filled with dread at the thought of the revenge El Travolta will exact. But even El Travolta is a peon, as is revealed in a spiral of political machinations set in place as the novel nears its denouement. El Travolta’s fate is perhaps the novel’s best illustration of the warping effects of the Mexican system of impunity. By selling out his colleagues and the truth, he buys himself the job of police chief; but he too is a victim, an increasingly pathetic figure destined to be chewed up and spit out.