The Texture of Crime in an Asian Megacity

Manila NoirManila Noir (Akashic Books, 2013). Edited by Jessica Hagedorn, Author of Dogeaters, Dream Jungle, and Toxicology

Starting with Brooklyn Noir (2004), the Akashic Noir series sets gritty crime stories in iconic cities. I was particularly interested in Akashic’s newest, Manila Noir, for very personal reasons. First, I moved to New York from Manila last year, and second, I’m writing a novel that takes place in Manila and that centers on a gritty crime.

So what can I say about Manila? Manila was hard, busy, hot, crowded. People from all walks of life were smashed on top of each other. Skyscrapers on top of slums. Slums burned down to make space for more skyscrapers. I witnessed my first murder there. I used to joke that compared to Manila, New York would be easy. (And it is – subway pushers, and gentleman gropers, and all). 

All of that to say, this book resonates so strongly with my personal experience, I urge readers to read this review with that in mind.

My favorite story is the first one.  “Aviary” by Lysley Tenorio (author of Monstress) tells the story of a gang of poor kids who terrorize Greenbelt Mall in Makati after learning that the mall management has hung up a sign that reads: “This is a private controlled environment. Poor people and other disturbing realities strictly prohibited.” I love this. I love this because I spent a lot of time at Greenbelt Mall, and it was posh and luxurious and immune from the harsh realities of poverty that abound in Manila – which is probably why I was there. The boys start their reign of terror by putting dead birds into the pockets of the Louis Vuitton bags. It’s genius. They fantasize that the rich people will, at first, be perplexed by the balls of dusts. “But when they look closer, they will blink several times, shudder, then scream at the thing they hold in their hands.” The boys are harmless. For now. But they want to be harmful, and someday, they’ll find a way to be.

When I said I witnessed a murder, the victim (according to a news report ) was an ex-cop, a bodyguard for a Chinese shabu dealer, who was operating a shabu lab two doors down from my apartment in the glitzy neighborhood of Rockwell. The killers were drug enforcement agents. Shabu is methamphetamine, which is supposed to be incredibly sulfurous when cooked. But I never saw, or smelled, anything of note. Given other discrepancies between what I saw and official reports, I’m skeptical of the “official” explanation of this man’s death.

I explain all this because the story “Satan Has Already Bought U” by Lourd de Veyra echoes my murder experience, and this ambiguity. The story opens on Cesar and Franco. Cesar thinks Franco is overcharging him for shabu. Their banter is light, almost friendly, but still business. There is mention that cops are “the biggest nastiest drug dealers” in Precinto Cinco, and for some reason, people keep getting stabbed in the eye. Cesar and Franco smoke up, banter about vigilante justice, until Cesar mentions he works for the precinct and stabs Franco in the eye. End of story (quite literally). And yet there is as much ambiguity in this short story as there is in the real events I saw out the peephole of my apartment. Why did Cesar kill Franco? Was he really a cop? Even if he was, is that why he did it? Vigilante justice? Or was he just pissed about being overcharged?

Ambiguity might be a connecting factor in many of these stories. Lots of endings don’t satisfy. Some stories don’t really end. Editor Jessica Hagedorn’s “Old Money,” which beautifully juxtaposes the middle class narrator with wealthy Paco, offers two alternate endings. This echoes what crime feels like in Manila. It’s ambiguous and circuitous and often unresolved.

I could write about all the stories I loved from this collection. The graphic short story “Trese: Thirteen Stations” by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldismo deals with the real-life fire at Guadalupe Viejo that many believed was set intentionally to move squatters off valuable land. The story provides justice where, in real life, there was none. I loved “Broken Glass” by Sabina Murray for the way the security guard, Babylon, convinces a thief to steal from the neighbors instead – even helps him over the fence – and then shoots him in the back. I love the innocence of the young narrator, and the innocence lost when she stumbles across the thief’s body later in the day. I also loved “Comforter of the Afflicted,” by F. H. Batacan, in which the detective slowly uncovers the secret identity of the deceased, 39-year-old Libby Delgado. Only when he learns that she covertly helped women escape abusive husbands, is he able to find her killer.  I love this because it shines a light on domestic abuse, which we don’t often think of as a “noir”-enough subject.

Suffice it to say that what the Noir series in general, and Manila Noir in particular, does so well is to create a 360-degree mosaic of a place. The effect reminds me of a TED Talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “The Danger of a Single Story.” “The single story creates stereotypes,” she says, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

By including so many perspectives, from so many walks of life, Manila Noir makes Manila seem as vibrant, and dangerous, and exciting, and confounding as it really felt to live there.