Nostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines’ most renowned novelists, Charlson Ong. With references to Marlene Dietrich, John Coltrane, Old Binondo, World War II, dogfights and summary executions, his foray into the mystery genre results in a symphony about the constant push and pull between the old and the new, the artful and the brutal.
The story begins with an iconic noir image: the beautiful woman in a red dress. Rather than a seductive shift, however, singer Laurice Saldiaga was wearing a red cheongsam when she died in the upstairs apartment of the Blue Angel, a decrepit jazz bar in the middle of Chinatown. A Hokkien-speaking mestizo policeman named Cyrus Ledesma is brought into the investigation because of its delicate nature, even as he comes to terms with his own dodgy past. He encounters a list of people with motives and opportunities to kill Laurice. The implication even goes as high up as the Mayor of Manila himself, Lagdameo Go-Lopez.
I have always harbored the belief that the way to make cities real is to write about them. Charlson Ong succeeds in making this true with this novel, vividly sketching the melancholy, grime-filled streets of Chinatown in my head, using mellifluous turns of phrase to conjure up the perfect mood. I had trouble with the 3rd person ominiscient style in the beginning–I’m used to mysteries that are either in 1st person or the very tight, 3rd person POV of a single character–but it manages to lay out the inner lives of all the people who somehow intersect with the doomed jazz songstress. Particularly poignant are the memories of Antonio Cobianco, owner of the Blue Angel, whose fondness for Laurice and the bar puts his innocence into question.
There are elements of the supernatural here, with old houses haunted by spirits and two characters who see ghostly visions, but they do not detract from the logic of the mystery like I initially feared. They add a lovely gothic dimension to the story, in fact, emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of memory and the uncomplicated acceptance of the Chinese-Filipino worldview when it comes to the unexplained.
Suspects attempting to deflect blame or harboring their own suspicions complicate Cyrus’s search for the truth, with bursts of violence throughout the story culminating into a satisfying horserace of a climax. The crucial thing for me was whether to final conflict would be satisfying, and I have to say it was–very reminscent of the over-the-top confrontations in Pinoy action movies but elevated by Ong’s gorgeous prose. I found the denouement and the last two chapters dragging, however.
If Charlson Ong ever decides to write more of these, I’m definitely buying. You can hear him talk about this novel in a podcast by DZUP’s Quadro Kantos, with download links here. I highly suggestion listening to it because they also played songs that Charlson Ong considers the “soundtrack” of Blue Angel, White Shadow.
(I wrote this review back in August for a challenge hosted by the Filipinos Group at Goodreads.)