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Crime Wave

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Crime has long been part of Filipino literature, with criminal and violent acts at the heart of many a literary work. The easiest example to remember would be Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere,” where the sacristan Crispin is accused of stealing from the church and is beaten to death. The accusation is a lie, of course, and the real culprit—the friar Padre Damaso—is never brought to justice. Madness and revenge ensue.

Western-style crime fiction—complete with police investigator and shadowy culprit—is relatively new to Philippine literature. The hardboiled chronicle of murders, while a very popular genre abroad, has only emerged from the shadows of obscurity fairly recently.

Why is this so? Literary critic Isagani R. Cruz says, “Our country’s history is full of unsolved crimes, so it’s not easy for us to believe stories where crimes are solved.” Cruz adds that “Logic, a main ingredient of detective novels, is not exactly the strong point of our novels. Start with ‘Noli’ and ‘El Filibusterismo,’ and think of any other novel by a Filipino.”

Fictionist Charlson Ong says it’s primarily due to the fact that our non-textbook-publishing industry is still quite young. Also, he adds, “Because of high criminality, people no longer want to indulge in it while reading fiction, but I suspect that Filipinos are also wary of dealing with evil as a moral presence. It is easy to dismiss the venality of politicians as resulting from the corruption of power and criminality in general as a result of poverty, but what about evil that cannot be explained away easily? Crime fiction, I think, becomes a form of moral philosophizing that Filipinos are uncomfortable with.”

This did not stop F.H. Batacan from writing what is arguably the first Western-style crime novel: “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” published in 2002 by the University of the Philippines Press. The book is centered on a serial killer preying on the children of Payatas as well as the efforts of a forensics-savvy Jesuit priest named Augusto Saenz to track the killer down.

“Smaller and Smaller Circles,” with its use of science and investigative work, also became a very divisive novel, with some readers bemoaning the unbelievable elements of this novel set in a Third World country. But “Smaller and Smaller Circles” also proved remarkably popular, achieving best-seller status and winning several awards—the Palanca, the Madrigal-Gonzalez Prize and the National Book Award.

Batacan’s choice of subject matter for a novel would seem to be an odd choice, given that she was more into music and humanities rather than crime fiction. She notes that the seeds of the genre can be found in the works of Nick Joaquin, Jose Dalisay, Edith Tiempo and Renato Madrid.

It was the workaday grind that started it all, she says. “Working in an intelligence agency was grinding me down, and I needed an outlet,” Batacan recalls. “But I had to imagine a context where I could talk about the culture of Philippine law enforcement without writing directly about my work. I wanted the core of the book to be about the culture of smug incompetence that pervades our public institutions, and how it often actively suppresses and hinders more forward-thinking elements. Once I had that core, the rest was easier.”

She even delved on the possibility of a Filipino serial killer, something she first thought off while working with the London Metropolitan Police. That antagonist meets a worthy antagonist in Saenz. But at its heart, “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is all about the process: “I love science and research and experimentation. It’s like being a 9-year-old all over again, playing.”

Another Filipino crime novel in English is “The Trail of the Chop-Chop Lady of Makati” by lawyer and novelist Wilfredo Garrido, published by Giraffe Books in 2008, which became a finalist for the National Book Award. Set in the streets of Makati, the novel explores the urban killing fields where a murderer violently dismembers and cuts up his victims, turning them into the “chop-chop lady” of public knowledge. Garrido has investigators both conventional (a policeman named Jaime Pogo) and unconventional (a computer hacker named Carlos). The many details of social realism in “The Trail of the Chop-Chop Lady of Makati” lends it a hardboiled quality that is very Filipino.

The most recent whodunit is “Blue Angel, White Shadow” by Ong, published by the University of the Santo Tomas Publishing House in 2010. Full of sharp details and vivid, memorable characters, “Blue Angel, White Shadow” begins with a murder, this time of a lounge singer named Laurice Saldiaga, whose body is found in a Binondo bar. It is up to Chinese mestizo police investigator Cyrus Ledesma to wade through all the urban detritus and figure out who the killer is.

That “Blue Angel, White Shadow” is set within the world of the Filipino-Chinese puts its right in Ong’s wheelhouse. To get his details right, Ong talked to his neighbor who worked in law enforcement. “I was able to learn a lot from him about local practices,” Ong says, adding that he set the action in a music lounge because he likes going to those places. “In any case I wanted to write about Chinatown as well as downtown Manila that is passing away and may be gone in another decade. I like reading crime stories in newspapers and keep note of the more memorable ones.”

The beautifully-written “Blue Angel, White Shadow” won the National Book Award and Ong, who has written several prize-winning novels before, says he knew what he wanted to do when he started that project. “I hoped to write a book that was both genre and ‘literary’ in the way Graham Greene and John LeCarre write some of their works. I think research is key to good crime fiction but ‘heart’ and sensibility is also important as the genre tends to be cerebral.”

The next logical step for crime novelists is to produce sequels featuring the characters from their first book. Ong plans to do just that.  For her part, the Singapore-based Batacan wants to do something different. She’s been working on a prequel featuring Joanna Bonifacio, the reporter who helps out Saenz in “Smaller and Smaller Circles.” She’s now halfway done and hopes to get her second novel published in 2012. But wait, there’s more.

“I’ve finished a collection of short stories that feature most of these characters,” Batacan explains. “And a cycle of books was always part of the plan—to build a world around these characters, seeing them at different stages of life and from different points of view. In real life, we look a certain way head-on, but turn us a few degrees to the right or the left and suddenly we’re completely different, capable of new and different things. I like to play with that.”

As more Filipinos turn to crime fiction, the possibility does exist that these three investigators—Augusto Saenz, Jaime Pogo and Cyrus Ledesma—will be back to investigate more grisly and complicated murders. And perhaps an entire new crop of freshly-created problem-solvers will join them as well.

In that, F.H. Batacan gets the last word: “If you know the genre, you understand that even the most ordinary detective—the great Everymen like Mankell’s Wallander or Le Carre’s Smiley or Miyabe’s Honma—brings something extraordinary to the table, certain qualities or abilities that elevate him above the norm for police work in his society. We want to believe that, because that is the unspoken promise of the detective novel—that somehow we are standing on the shoulders of a giant.” •


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