Those who have read Charlson Ong’s crime fiction novel Blue Angel, White Shadow will recall the fast-paced narrative and its “screwed-up cop” protagonist, the strangely likable detective Inspector Cyrus Ledesma.
Ledesma immerses himself in the search for the murderer of a young lounge singer, traversing Manila’s demimonde as he sifts through a bunch of likely and unlikely suspects. Ong handles dialogue with a deft touch—the flow of conversations are cinematic in their scope and feel—and his prose is mellifluous, lyrical:
“He stopped to listen and breathe in the melody-like mist but it reminded him of a half-forgotten tale and filled him with such longing that he knew it was too soon to discount the piano player. No, not yet, he’d at least have to hear the whole song.”
In his latest work, a thriller packed with intrigue and adventure, the song plays on as Ong returns to familiar surroundings—the urban wasteland of sin and squalor, recklessness and redemption. Dr. Chester Limhuatco aids Emily Mahiwo, a lounge singer (again), who has fallen unconscious in a stampede. He recognizes her as the “white lady” who haunts his dreams.
That meeting leads to his becoming embroiled in a mystery involving, among others, members of a Black Nazarene cult and its leader Jose “Tata Peping” Crenshaw, the son of a black soldier and a Filipina (the “Black Christ);” Gerard de Bruyne, white ex-priest gone native and called the “White Igorot;” and Chester’s school friend Jefferson Po, a government agent working to unravel the cult’s machinations.
In between expositions on the characters’ pasts and presents, the narrative jolts forward – the cult pulls a disruptive stunt at the Traslacion; Chester and Jefferson are hot on their heels to prevent them from doing more harm; the real threat erupts from de Bruyne.
The prose is complex and dense, encompassing topics as diverse as the traditions of the Nazareno devotion, stent insertions, folk medicine and spells, and Philippine religious history.
As in his earlier novel, Ong parades a diverse lineup of characters whose foibles and quirks make them more realistic and relatable. Through skillful characterization, the archetypes of the crime fighter, protagonist who unwittingly finds himself in a fraught situation, damsel in distress, and villain are upended; there is no black-and-white, only a wide spectrum of gray.
Several of the characters are engaged on separate search quests as Ong taps the Rizal motherlode of fiction for familiar characters: Emily is looking for her father, the former priest Gerard de Bruyne; Chester is looking for Emily, who he has lost track of; Chester’s daughter Carmen, an academic dilettante, is searching for her friend and crush Roger Geisler, a Swedish anthropologist, and de Bruyne’s nephew; Emily’s mother Maria is looking for her daughter; Po is looking for the cult leaders; and de Bruyne is seeking nothing less than the overthrow of the Catholic Church’s foundations in the country.
As in real life, some of the characters are flawed; the toxic masculinity of Chester and Jefferson are at times hard to bear, and sex intrudes in some characters’ minds at inappropriate moments, turning some of the writing awkward.
Was Chester’s removal of Emily from the stampede a rescue or a kidnap, because he brings her, without her consent, to his condo instead of the hospital? Father De Bruyne muses as he looks at Maria: “…her face was aglow and her breasts proud.” Emily, in a dangerous situation in the Brotherhood’s lair, sees Peping “half-naked” and thinks “…how well built he was. He could have stepped out of a gladiator movie and she felt her heart racing like a wild stallion.” Chester, while performing open-heart surgery on Emily, sees her “naked for the first time” and feels “a jolt of electricity surge through him.” With the characters trapped in patriarchal modes of thinking and behavior, the novel portrays the messiness of real life.
The convoluted plot is a challenge to follow. The cult and Crenshaw at first seem to be the story’s focus, but then it pivots to de Bruyne late in the novel, his plan to kill the Pope coming out of the field.
Ong maintains a high standard of writing throughout. The sophistication of his prose shines bright as ever. His mind on the Wowowee-type stampede, Chester thinks: “…but these deaths…resulted only from callousness, from crassness, from another circus for the poor who could dream only of sudden wealth, sudden redemption – like Dimas – and whose pain must pass once the next circus or crucifixion hits town.”
The patient reader will be rewarded with a tale deeply rooted in Filipino-ness, in easily recognized social themes and issues, some characters seemingly based on actual personalities. The song of the city’s underbelly plays on.
Errata from the previous column on Book Development Association of the Philippines’ board members: Honey de Peralta represents the Overseas Publishers’ Representatives Association of the Philippines (OPRAP), and Dr. John Jack Wigley is an author-representative.
For comments and feedback, you may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO
White Lady, Black Christ
By Charlson Ong
288 pages, Milflores Publishing, 2021
P549.00 // www.milflorespublishing.com