Monday, July 01, 2013

Manila Noir

Manila Noir is my fourth experience with the intriguing noir short story series published by Akashic Books (following Boston Noir, Mexico City Noir, and Long Island Noir), a series now numbering something like fifty-six titles.  Much like the first three collections I read, Manila Noir is a bit of a mixed bag.  When it is good it is very, very good.  The good news is that when it is "bad," the stories only sink to the level of mediocrity, not to awfulness.

The fourteen stories in the collection were written (in English) by writers, several of which now live in the United States, who were born in the Philippines.  It also includes an excellent introduction to set the mood for what is to follow, one that clearly defines the elements of Manila-style noir that give the Filipino version of the genre a special edge.  Also from the introduction, I particularly like editor Jessica Hagedorn's list of what she calls the noir essentials:”   

"alienated and desperate characters, terse dialogue, sudden violence, betrayals left and right.  And of course, there's plenty of mordant humor.  And of course, there are no happy endings."

Editor Jessica Hagedorn
Three of the short stories particularly stand out in my memory.  The first of these, by Rosario Cruz-Lucero, is an atmospheric gem entitled "A Human Right" that involves Manila death squads, childhood friends, and family loyalty that will stay with me for a long time because it considers so many questions in only seventeen pages.  This is the stuff of the best coming-of-age novels.    

"Comforter of the Afflicted," by F.H. Batacan (a woman who worked for  Philippine intelligence for several years) is the tragic story of a woman who died, almost anonymously, in the service of others.  I am particularly taken with the story's central character, an elderly priest who lends his investigative skills to an overburdened police department that depends greatly on Father Saenz's help.  I believe that this priest is one of two Jesuits featured in the author's 2002 novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, a book I am now looking to add to my To-Be-Read stack. 

The third story I want to mention is Sabina Murry's (yes, if you are wondering, the collection does include stories by male authors) "Broken Glass."  This is the story of a little girl who, while visiting her rich aunt, makes a grisly discovery in the walled home's lush garden.  It is a highly atmospheric story that explores the relationship between Manila's rich and those who depend on them for their own survival.  It is also a coming-of-age story of sorts in which a bright little girl learns a lot about the world she lives in.

Bottom Line:  This is a worthy addition to a thriving series that seems to have no end (the publisher already has announced an additional fifteen titles in the works).  I will, I hope, be reading more of them.  If noir-styled fiction is to your liking, this just might be the series you were hoping to find.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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