detective fiction

On Charlson Ong’s ‘Blue Angel, White Shadow’

Blue Angel, White Shadow. Charlson Ong.
University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

Blue Angel, White Shadow. Charlson Ong. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.
Blue Angel, White Shadow. Charlson Ong. University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2011.

Crime fiction arrived in the Philippines during the American colonial period and was hugely popular. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, became a household name, and Agatha Christie’s works gained a significant following. Detective stories were translated in the 1930s at the height of popularity of magazines such as Liwayway and Sampaguita. But there were, and still are, few Philippine literary works in this genre. It might be ironic that in a country full of crime, hardly anyone writes crime fiction, though of course crime fiction is different from the stories of crime reported daily in newspapers or on the airwaves.

Recent distinguished works of crime fiction include Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan and The Builder by the late National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo. The former, which won the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 1999 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, among other honors, has been hailed for being both “popular” and “literary”, and twists the typical pattern of a crime story by revealing to readers the mind of the killer. Tiempo’s novel also veers away from the usual whodunit and is instead a “why-dunit”, such that the conclusion of the story reveals the motivation of the suspect, whose identity is earlier shown. Also worth noting is Trese by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, an award-winning three-volume comics series that combines crime-fiction conventions with folk supernatural elements.

Charlson Ong’s latest novel, Blue Angel, White Shadow, is a welcome addition to Philippine literature in this genre. While the story has the usual elements of a crime fiction story—a crime, victim, a list of suspects, clues, and a detective—it does not entirely follow the traditional mold.

The story begins like most crime fiction: with a murder. Twenty-five-year-old Laurice Saldiaga is a lounge singer in a Binondo bar called Blue Angel Café, and she is killed in her room just above it. The detective, Inspector Cyrus Ledesma, is assigned to the case by his superior officer and uncle. Having grown up in Binondo, Ledesma encounters familiar faces and revisits his checkered past as he probes Laurice’s murder.

Every character that Ledemsa investigates has a possible motive to commit the crime and it keeps the reader guessing as to who is the guilty party: Is it Saldiaga’s boss Rosa Misa? The waitress Bituin? The piano player Rey? Manila mayor Lagdameo Go-Lopez? Business mogul Tony Cobianco? Ledesma also has to deal with Rosa Misa’s daughter, the journalist Rosemarie, who looms large in the plot and desires to clear her godfather Tony’s name.

Unlike many murder mysteries where the point-of-view is usually that of the detective, Ong devotes a chapter each to a character’s story, letting the reader judge for himself or herself if, based on this character’s history, he or she is the likely culprit. The novel also takes the reader through the nuances and complications of Philippine and Chinese-Filipino history, politics, and culture. The intricate web that Ong spins between the characters keeps the suspense and excitement at a high level.

As finely woven as Blue Angel is, however, I do not believe that it has a strong ending. It is almost as though the concluding revelation was the result of exhaustion with all the puzzles that had been previously constructed. Still, the novel is quite a page-turner, and is definitely a worthy read. —Karen Frondozo, Interlineal.net

*Thanks are due to Mr. Carljoe Javier of University of Santo Tomas Publishing House for generously providing a review copy of this book.