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: