BTBA 2011 First Look-The Black Minutes by Martin Solares

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Martin Solares~Mexico

The article was by a new columnist, Johnny Guerrero, a guy from Chihuahua.  Rangel didn’t like his style.  From the first day, he was writing articles attacking the chief, like he was on the mayor’s payroll. He interspersed his opinion with the facts and he exaggerated things, but more that that he seasoned his writing with flowery words:  he made a bum into a derelict, a prostitute into a strumpet.  For him, an autopsy was the legal necropsy and he wrote mean-spirited captions under the photos:  This is the miserable construction worker; Here we find the despicable ranch hand.  The first time Johnny tried to interview him on the phone, Rangel took an immediate dislike to him.  He imagined him as crippled, fat squat, and greasy-faced.  And he didn’t get the reporter’s sense of humor, which seemed to require that someone else be humiliated.

As we look back through history, it is difficult to determine which came first: power or corruption.  This question is the crux of Martin Solares’ debut detective novel, The Black Minutes.  With the news highlighting police corruption in major metropolitan areas, the line between cop and criminal is blurry, faint one indeed.  Solares’s tale, set in the fictional Mexican port town of Paracuan, uncovers the dishonesty that has plagued the city’s police force for decades.  Replete with a dizzying list of characters and maze-worthy plot, it fluctuates between present day and the 1970’s making it feel like a shotgun wedding between Serpico and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The book opens with the murder of Bernardo Blanco, a young journalist investigating a multiple murder case from the 1970’s.  Ramon Cabrera is the older officer assigned to the case, leading him on the same trail as Blanco, which Cabrera soon learns is the trail that got him killed. The murders involved young school girls and pinned on a man called The Jackal in the press.  As Cabrera delves into the original detective’s investigation, Officer Vincent Rangel(Solares’ Serpico), he realizes that many of police force’s present day major players were on the force with Rangel.  Alternating between Rangel’s investigation and Cabrera’s investigation, the cast of characters fleshes out as Solares connects the two stories by character’s involved in both.  Solares keeps the quick pace moving and seasons the novel with some intriguing historical figures including the writer B. Travern (
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Mexican singer Rigo Tovar.  One of the connecting dots between the two investigations is the Jesuit priest, Father Tschanz, whose discussions with Cabrera add levity and tension. Once we meet the man allegedly responsible for the gruesome murders of the young girls, René Luz de Dios López, the reader is all but told that he isn’t the true murderer.  Later, we learn has been framed and serving the time for The Jackal’s crime. 

The novel, competently translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker, keeps the reader interested even through the somewhat messy narrative which refocuses our attention unevenly – there are times when we are in Rangel’s story too long. Yet, it doesn’t suffocate the other parts of the novel so much so that we give up on it.  Solares is relatively strong with pacing and tension as he is with characterization and plot.  The prose has some first time writer’s weaknesses like telling instead of showing(lots of ‘growling’) but that’s a minor flaw.   The deteriorating relationship between Cabrera and his wife is the one element that was difficult to buy. It’s not fleshed out enough but merely resorts to cliches about how she wants more talking and he wants to control the remote.  She appears and reappears too conveniently as if to only serve the plot. 

The Black Minutes is an above average detective novel that addresses powerful themes relevant to modern times including police corruption, the influence of media, and  the value of ethics. When a good cop is surrounded by bad ones, is it that one cop enough to avoid a lawless society?  The conclusion of the novel doesn’t wrap up definitively, but merely gives us one answer to a question that has many answers.  Considering the elaborate aspirations of this novel, it is a success. 

The Black Minutes

By Martin Solares
Translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker
Black Cat/Grove
Paperback, 288 pp.
ISBN: 9780802170682

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