Book Review: Manila Noir, Edited by Jessica Hagedorn

Manila Noir - Jessica Hagedorn


Title: Manila Noir

Edited by: Jessica Hagedorn

Genre: Fiction, Noir, Anthology

First Published: 2013, Akashic Books

“Let me know what you think.” With a small smile, A.C. slid his copy of Jessica Hagedorn’s ‘Manila Noir’ across the metal table. I fingered through the pages, catching words like murder, blood, guns, and guts… the elements of grim and gritty tales. I must admit, I don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to noir fiction. My memories of the genre had to do with taking Film Noir in college and writing about overtones and undertones, themes, undercurrents, and atmospheres… Aha! I stopped flipping pages when I spotted Lourd de Veyra’s short story (and witty acronym), Satan Has Already Bought U.

Gil Scott-Heron immediately leapt to mind, blasting away that this “Revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised.” See, LDV isn’t just an acclaimed poet and activist, he also fronts one of the country’s top jazz bands, the Radioactive Sago Project. His musical work has shades of GSH, *that* or it’s riddled with sun spots that imprint on the mind’s eye. By virtue of the quality of his writing and the groove of his messages, I knew I was going to love LDV’s contribution. It wasn’t a matter of choice, so much as tendency.

And having read the book from cover-to-cover, some works twice-over, there really is much to love about Manila Noir. For the most part, it captured the grit and feel of the shadier corners of the city. Jessica Hagedorn’s gut feel for good lit has brought us this solid compilation of Manila-centric noir fiction. Granted, like any anthology, Manila Noir is a mix of hits and misses—I’m happy to report that there are more hits than misses in this particular bag of treats. Particularly notable, in my humble opinion, are the following:

Satan Has Already Bought U by Lourd de Veyra (Project 2, Quezon City). A page into this short story, and you know where it’s headed. When a fidgety dealer and an angry addict meet, it really won’t end well—that is a fact. But what makes this work an easy favorite, at least for me, is its stellar execution. This is one story that barely meanders; everything is relevant.

A Human Right by Rosario Cruz Lucero (Intramuros). Though the main crime is set within the confines of the famous walled city, the female lead’s flashbacks bring us to the sprawling haciendas in Davao where the DDS (Davao Death Squad) runs rampant. This particular short provides a lengthy back story that ties up beautifully with the murder that takes place at the end of the narrative.

Broken Glass by Sabina Murray (New Manila). The fact that the story is told through the perspective of a young girl only makes Broken Glass an even more compelling read than it already is. Murray does a solid job of pulling the reader in and making you experience things as the child does. The crime unfolds with every discovery made by the girl—and though nothing is said outright, that only serves to fuel this particular reader’s interest in the plot.

Trese: Thirteen Stations by Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo (EDSA, Metro Manila). Let me say it outright. I haven’t read a lot of comic books and graphic novels. But what little I read, I usually liked. And in this case, this short story, I liked a lot. Set in the various MRT stations spread out along the length of EDSA, Trese: Thirteen Stations  is a fun mix of horror, crime, and fantasy. You have ghosts, ghouls, demons, and even Santelmo (St. Elmo’s Fire); an otherworldly train transporting the dead to the afterlife as it runs through the MRT tracks… what’s not to love? Takes me back to the time when I was little and Pinoy comic books were mostly ‘bold’ or riddled with aswangs, or both bold and riddled with aswangs.

Cariño Brutal by R. Zamora Linmark (Tondo). Probably the most brutal of all the works in the collection, Cariño Brutal starts off with the discovery of a mutilated body hanging from an ancient Balete tree. It’s the badly beaten corpse of Vanessa Blanca, a former Miss Gay Tondo Universe. The harrowing image serves as a cautionary tale to young Lala, as she tries to avoid having the same fate as her mentor.

Norma and Norman by Jonas Vitman (Chinatown). Another incredibly vicious offering fueled by the worst sort of homophobia—the one that leads to serial killings. Though at times, hard to stomach, with the cruel beating scene and all, Vitman turns things around to exact bittersweet and brutal revenge.

Old Money by Jessica Hagedorn (Forbes Park). Set in one of the most posh residential areas in the metro, Old Money tells the story of a spoiled rich kid about to get his comeuppance. To balance off whatever didactic undertones the story may have, Hagedorn tells it through the voice of a lovesick young man who will do almost anything for his greedy lover. Naturally, it ends in bloodbath. Absolutely spectacular. But then again, did anyone expect anything less from Ms. Hagedorn? I think not.

The Verdict: B+

All in all, Manila Noir is an entertaining read that’s sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. The fact that it showcases some of the best literary talents in the country only makes the book even more read-worthy.

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