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."