Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn

Originally published in 2013 as part of the Akashic Noir series.
Contains 14 short stories.

For the perfect definition of noir, look no further than Manila. The city itself is like a femme fatale: sexy, complicated, and betrayed. From its fraught colonial history to its present-day incarnation of a teeming metropolis, it is a city of extremes: posh hotels and slums, religious zeal and superstitions, corrupt cops and heroic citizens.
Capturing the essence of Manila, one of the wildest cities on the planet, this collection of noir includes stories by Lourd de Veyra, Gina Apostol, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, F.H. Batacan, Jose Dalisay, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, Angelo R. Lacuesta, R. Zamora Linmark, Rosario Cruz-Lucero, Sabina Murray, Jonas Vitman, Marianne Villanueva, and Lysley Tenorio.

It has been a really long time since I last read and reviewed one of the short story collections from the Akashic Noir range (or any multi-author short story collection). I suppose the reason is a mixture of knowing that these posts tend to get much lower traffic since they are so different from much of the other material I write about and that categorizing and tagging posts with a dozen or more authors and potentially the same number of translators can be an exhausting process.

What I appreciate about these books though is that the offer a window to other places, offering a way to travel and experience those locations through the printed page. Typically our guides are local writers, able to portray tensions within a community or aspects of a place that most travellers would be oblivious to. This collection is a little different in that, according to their biographies at the end of the book, many of the writers are no longer living in the Philippines. I think they still able to offer insights and reflections on a place from a place of personal knowledge, particularly given that several of the stories take place in the past.

Manila Noir is one of the older titles in the collection, originally published back in 2013, which I had picked up a while ago as an ebook. The setting is one I am unfamiliar with, which is always a draw, and a quick read of the introduction sold me that this would be an interesting location to explore and learn more about.

I was pleased to find that this is one of the most consistent collections I have read in the range to date in terms of the stories’ quality. With one exception, The Unintended by Gina Apostol which I struggled to follow, I found these stories to be engaging and tightly told.

The first part of the collection, a grouping of stories titled ‘Us Against Them’ explore class conflict within Manila. The standout story here is Broken Glass by Sabina Murphy which explores the aftermath of an attempted robbery from the perspective of a child who overhears discussion of the event from her aunt and the men who work on her estate. While the ending sort of fizzles out, I think the story does communicate how this event is eye-opening for her and I think it is the most effective play on that theme of the contrasting experiences of life within Manila’s different economic strata.

The other stories in this section were not quite as successful but each still has a point of interest whether it is the vivid description of a car flipping in Angelo R. Lacuesta’s After Midnight or the discussion of the Davao Death Squad in Rosario Cruz-Lucero’s A Human Right. I think there is an argument that can be made though that some don’t quite feel cynical or dark enough to fit the noir label.

While I enjoyed that first section, the second, ‘Black Pearl of the Orient’, was much richer and offered a greater variety of themes and storytelling styles. Trese: Thirteen Stations is a comic that fits in to a long-running series. The supernatural and horror themes may turn some off but I found it one of the most interesting stories in the collection. F. H. Batacan’s Comforter of the Afflicted is equally impressive, exploring the murder of a woman and the story of a girl who grew up witnessing her mother’s abuse at the hands of her father and I found it to be quite a powerful read.

The final part, ‘They Live By Night’, dives into more expected territory of Manila’s night life with stories focused on exploring themes of drug abuse and prostitution. One of the stories, Eric Gamalinda’s Darling, You Can Count On Me grabbed me with its careful use of multiple perspectives and exploration of a real crime – the murder and dismemberment of Lucila Lulu.

The others each had some aspect that frustrated me, though I felt all three were worthwhile. Jessica Hagedorn’s Old Money builds up to a very strong moment of confrontation but I think it undermines it with a choice to offer alternative endings – a decision that keeps it from feeling as brutal as it should. I found the storytelling up to that point compelling though and felt that it was an interesting read.

Jonas Vitman’s Norma from Norman, the final story in the collection, is a really powerful exploration of a character who is the victim of a hate crime and might have been a highlight of the collection but the brutality in the graphic descriptions of the violence was too strong for me (while other stories have moments of violence they are considerably less gristly). Other, less squeamish readers may well feel differently.

Overall then I was very pleased with Manila Noir. I came away from it with a list of topics and places I wanted to learn more about and authors I wanted to read more from which for an anthology is the perfect outcome. While I am sure it will be a while before I tackle one of these collections again, I do look forward to doing so. If you have read any of them and have particular recommendations please feel free to share.

The Verdict: A very solid collection of short stories, almost all of which worked for me on some level.

Comments on each story follow after the break:

Part I: Us Against Them

Aviary by Lysley Tenorio

The collection opens with this interesting piece that tracks a group’s destructive rampage through an upscale mall. The piece is reflecting on inequality and while the insights offered are not unexpected, there is some intriguing imagery used here (particularly in reference to the story’s title) and I appreciated the story’s punchy ending. Some may feel however that it doesn’t really evoke that noir feeling in its storytelling style.

A Human Right by Rosario Cruz-Lucero

This story is about a human rights campaigner who sees the man who murdered her father years before. The exploration of their history is quite interesting, there is a good sense of place and time and I appreciated the sharpness of the ending.

Satan Has Already Bought U by Lourd de Veyra

A pair of meth-heads get high and talk about their habit and crimes in the area. This story ground me down and not really in a positive way – the repetition of the title throughout the story quickly became tiresome for me.

Broken Glass by Sabina Murphy

The protagonist of this story is a child who hears part of a story told by her aunt about a foiled burglary the night before. The choice of narrator is interesting and I did appreciate the way they piece this together from fragments of things overheard. The only disappointment is that the story doesn’t really have much of an ending.

After Midnight by Angelo R. Lacuesta

This story starts with a car accident on New Year’s Eve before working backwards to explore the events that preceded it that evening. If this was told chronologically there would not be much to this at all as the scenario is pretty simple but I do think the descriptions of the crash are fairly effective.

Part II: Black Pearl of the Orient

Trese: Thirteen Stations by Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo

I had never heard of the Trese comics (apparently the first volume just got a US release from Ablaze Publishing) so it took me a while to catch the vibe of this story and understand exactly how it fit into the scope of the collection given its heavy horror style. Alexandra Trese is a detective who specializes in cases that involve aswang, shape-shifting evil spirits that can feed on humans. Based on this story they appear to be organized into cartels and Trese deals with the leaders, trying to keep them in line with deals and treaties.

In this comic, people traveling on the Metrostar Express are seeing aswang appear during their journey with tragic consequences for one family. Trese investigates to try and discover what is happening. There is a solid clue hook and a great explanation that plants this squarely in noir territory. Some won’t care for the horror or supernatural elements and that’s fine but I grew to really appreciate the gritty black and white art style and world Tan and Baldisimo create and commend the editor and publishers for its inclusion. I probably would have enjoyed this even more if I had read any of the other stories. An anime adaptation is coming to Netflix later this year and I expect I will check it out.

Comforter of the Afflicted by F. H. Batacan

The second of the stories in this collection to be set at New Year’s and one of the best in this collection, Comforter of the Afflicted tells two stories simultaneously – the murder of a woman whose identity seems mysterious and the story of a young girl who grows up in a household where her mother is abused. The connection between the two stories is not surprising but that didn’t matter as the themes were powerful and communicated very effectively.

One of the main characters in this apparently featured in Batacan’s first novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, so I plan on seeking it out to find out more about them.

The Professor’s Wife by Jose Dalisay

A professor’s assistant tells the story of how he came to buy a luxury car at a hefty discount from his employer’s widow. I felt pretty sure I knew where this story was headed so I was pleased to find that I was slightly off in my guesses. A very nicely written slice of noir.

Cariño Brutal by R. Zamora Linmark

The story concerns the murder of Vanessa, a bakla considered a great beauty, whose defiled body is found hanging from a tree.

This work is incredibly short to the point that I would suggest it is less a story than an exploration of a hate crime that prompts a moment of realization for a character. It is also incredibly powerful.

The Unintended by Gina Apostol

This concerns the daughter of a film director who shot a film in the Philippines several decades earlier who has returned to visit a location on a ‘spiritual journey’, prior to making her own picture. This is told from the perspective of the local who is driving her.

This is one of the longest stories in the collection and while I think there are some really interesting ideas here, I struggled to engage with it as a whole. Some of it will be that I was unaware of some of the events referred to here – particularly the Ali-Frazier fight and the Balangiga massacre. The story did lead to me reading up on the latter so it did do some good. Regardless of the references though, the story is often just hard to follow and while I am pretty sure I understand the meaning of the ending, it is really implied rather than stated, reducing its power.

I wanted to like this though and I do wonder if others will experience this differently.

Part III: They Live By Night

Old Money by Jessica Hagedorn

Nick returns to Manila from California at the behest of his rich aunt. His father is dying. He meets Paco, a drug dealer, at a club and the pair form a secret relationship that ends suddenly when Paco disappears without a trace. I found the story and the characters interesting and felt that it built to a really powerful moment close to the end. Unfortunately I think the decision to follow that with two alternate endings renders both a little hollow and unsatisfying.

Desire by Marianne Villanueva

Not sure what I have to say about this one. It is another shorter work and it is made up of a series of incidents in a man’s life, each of which reflect on the concept of desire. I found it a little disjointed though there are some interesting moments and images.

Darling, You Can Count on Me by Eric Gamalinda

Opening with newspaper clippings about the discovery of parts of a woman who had been chopped into pieces, this story proceeds to explore the killing from the perspectives of different people connected with the murder. Gamalinda does a superb job of making this approach compelling with each new account redefining how we see that event until the final one explains everything.

I was already impressed with the work so discovering that it is a fictional exploration of a real murder case (that of Lucila Lulu) only made it more interesting to me.

Norma from Norman by Jonas Vitman

This story touches on similar subject matter to Cariño Brutal though far more graphically and at much greater length. It has a stronger narrative – a transexual prostitute is preparing to travel to be operated on but when she answers the door to what she assumes is a customer arriving early, instead she is violently attacked.

The graphic violence in this story was a bit too much for me but I think it quite successful at portraying the character’s life, aspirations and resilience as well as some of the practical concerns related to prostitution. I felt I understood those experiences better for reading it but, as I say, be prepared for some graphic and upsetting violence.

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