At the beginning of The Black Minutes, Martín Solares’s debut novel (translated from the Spanish by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker), action, points of view, and, in particular, characters come at the reader quickly. The Black Minutes is a detective story that involves two related criminal investigations in the fictional Mexican port city of Paracuán. The first case involves the murder of a young journalist, Bernardo Blanco. The other is the decades-old, closed investigation that Blanco was attempting to reexamine and write about just before he got himself clipped: the infamous 1977 murders of a group of little girls by el Chacal (the Jackal).
Blanco is killed straightaway, and before Detective Ramon “El Macetón” Cabrera gets far into his investigation, the reader is whisked back to 1977, where another detective, Vincente “El Músico” Rangel, is hunting the Jackal—for justice, a dead uncle’s approval, the hefty reward, or other reasons?
This structure works well at first. Solares successfully creates an anxiety that has the reader wondering about—and eager to discover—the connection between these gruesome crimes (the girls are mutilated; Blanco is given a Colombian necktie). But the story stays in 1977 far too long—almost all of its 400-plus pages—and eventually the tension weakens and then dissolves altogether. By the time we return to Ramon Cabrera and the Blanco investigation, the novel has long lost its momentum.
Along the way we realize the story is not about finding out who killed the girls but rather who got away with their murders. We know the case was not properly solved (Cabrera makes a prison visit to René Luz de Dios López, the man who was framed for the Jackal’s crimes); we also know that Cabrera is the only one who can redress this injustice. It seems prudent for Solares to leave Rangel behind and return to el Macetón, but he doesn’t—that is, not until the book’s conclusion. These final pages, in a way, redeem The Black Minutes—the pace picks up again, the action resumes, questions are answered—but for some readers this might come too late.
What Solares does provide is characters—loads of them. He wisely creates a list at the front of his book, since many also have colorful nicknames: el Beduino, el Profe, el Brujo, Gordolobo, el Chicote, el Travolta, el Evangelista, etc. Some character names are playfully literary (ex-FBI agent and author Cormac McCormick, congressman Tobías Wolffer), and a boy named Martín Solares appears very briefly as part of a scout troop that finds the body of one of the Jackal’s later victims. There are episodes featuring real-life people: legendary Mexican singer Rigo Tovar, famous criminologist Dr. Alfonso Quiroz Cuarón, and B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Solares’s digressive storylines keep a reader engaged and his minor characters can be more compelling than the main ones. Rangel’s lackey, Jorge Romero (“el Ciego”—“the Blind Man”) is one of these secondary characters; Father Fritz Tschanz, a Jesuit priest, is another. His interactions with Detective Cabrera are a highlight of the book. And when the action regains its momentum in the book’s final movement, it is el Ciego who propels the story with his first-person testimony.
Though Solares doesn’t list it in his dramatis personae, the city’s media play a crucial role in The Black Minutes, specifically the newspapers which document the history of Paracuán. The articles and headlines Solares provides have their own personalities, often like those of the human characters: petty, unreliable, corrupt, mendacious, useful, useless, funny, human. When an important set of newspapers goes missing at the archives, it is not only a lost set of clues in the Bernardo Blanco investigation but an erasure of the collective memory of Paracuán. A journalist is dead, but the newspapers still tell the story of those murdered girls. And reporters and columnists and photographers are crucial to the plot—as in life north of the border, public-relations spin is almost as important as what has actually occurred. This confusion, and the novel’s great ambitions, make it a promising first effort despite its flaws.