From its first pages, it’s clear that Martin Solares’ debut crime novel is shooting for more than basic genre thrills. The writing is clean, almost edgeless, but the occasional elegant metaphor slips in: The police check of a bus traveling to Mexico is managed by a cop who “displayed his badge as if he were going to bless them with it… he was a fat man of little faith and didn’t even think of hauling them in.” Most of the writing, however, steers clear of overt gestures, for a good reason: At 436 pages, this double-tiered mystery has more than enough incident to get through as is.
The novel begins and ends with Ramon Cabrera (also known as “El Maceton”), a prototypical poor-but-honest Mexican cop sucked into an investigation with too many high-reaching implications, forced to decide whether to do the life-threatening right thing against unbelievable odds. But Cabrera gets sucked into a leftover cover-up from the ’70s, the narrative of which takes up most of the book. The details are sprawling, involving many characters (most of whom have at least two names, one given and one nickname, used with blithe interchangeability), but the crux is simple: Someone well-connected once got away with murdering children, and is now killing again. Can a second scapegoat be found, or will justice ultimately be served?
Solares puts his protagonists through the violent paces briskly, mostly in short chapters that frequently clock in at four pages or less. The story is nothing new—corruption is prevalent and institutionalized, Mexico remains mired in crime, and justice can never be served—but it’s told briskly, with good detail. Though his story is set in a fictional province, Solares has done his homework. His reconstructions of 1978’s newspapers as viewed in an archive to piece together the crime include ads for Kojak, a new film by reigning Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein, well-named porn films (The Gestapo’s Secret Train), bands, and headlines about Kissinger.
The ’70s hang heavy over The Black Minutes—too heavy, with politics and allusions often thrown down as a gauntlet. As if cameos from B. Traven, John Huston, and Alfred Hitchcock weren’t enough, there’s endless name-checking of baseline ’60s musical icons, and one character who goes off in a chapter-long monologue about being “an undercover agent in the service of New Journalism,” which he then explicates at tedious, stoned length. Mostly, though, The Black Minutes is briskly immersive and satisfyingly tangled, with a resonant sense of the weight of age-old injustices.