I follow the Toni Morrison adage, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
I’ve been a mystery fan pretty much my whole life, with a childhood spent watching Perry Mason, Matlock, and Murder, She Wrote with my grandparents and sharing Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown books with my mom. My mom later expanded my crime fiction-loving world by introducing me to Mary Higgins Clark and cozy mysteries. But in all the media I consumed, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of characters who looked like me and worlds that resembled my own. That’s what led me to create my debut cozy mystery series, A Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery, centering a young Filipino American woman and her family’s restaurant.
As I became more involved in the crime fiction community and became a member of groups like Crime Writers of Color, my book world expanded and I was introduced to a much more diverse reading experience than I’d previously had. So today, I’d love to help expand your book worlds with my list of must-read Filipino crime fiction authors.
Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan
First published in the Philippines in 2002 and released in the U.S. by Soho Crime in 2015, Smaller and Smaller Circles won the Philippine National Book Award and is considered the first Filipino crime novel. Set in the 1990s, it follows two Jesuit priests investigating the murders of young boys in a poverty-stricken region of the Philippines (which happens to be a neighborhood in my mom’s hometown).
Father Gus Saenz is both a priest and a forensic anthropologist (one of the few in the country) and is brought in by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation to consult on the most recent death–the latest in a string of serial murders, though the powers that be refuse to acknowledge that there’s a serial killer on the loose. His protege, Father Jerome Lucero, is a trained psychologist, and together the two race to track down the killer before they strike again.
The book deals heavily with the themes of corruption–in the church, in the police force, in the government at large–and focuses on an area and a people considered expendable by the people in power. The press materials for the book state, “Conceived as a corrective measure to address the widely purported notion that there are no serial killers in the Philippines, F.H. Batacan insists in her debut that overlooked, under-policed, impoverished communities are especially vulnerable to violent crime and are often forced to seek justice outside of the over-burdened, corrupt state legal apparatus.”
Highly recommended, but considering the subject matter, not for the faint of heart.
Manila Noir by Jessica Hagedorn (editor)
If you’re a short story fan and/or are looking for more stories in areas outside the usual U.S./UK settings, make sure to check out this anthology, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. The review states, “The Filipino take on noir includes a liberal dose of the gothic and supernatural, with disappearance and loss being constants. We read of families splintered by violence, drugs and desperation, mothers and fathers forced to leave their families to find work abroad.” The review goes on to list several standout stories, including F.H. Batacan’s “Comforter of the Afflicted,” which is a loose sequel to Smaller and Smaller Circles (mentioned above).
The Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Some of the most interesting takes on crime fiction are happening in kidlit, and this YA novel following a Filipino American teen who travels to the Philippines to find out the truth about his cousin’s murder (an apparent victim in President Duterte’s drug war) is one of the best. And that’s not just my opinion–this book won or was shortlisted for an impressive string of awards, including being both a National Book Award and an Edgar Award finalist, and being named Best Book of the Year by NPR, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and many more. Equal parts coming of age story and murder mystery, this book is beautiful, nuanced, and powerful–have some tissues ready, because if you’re anything like me, you’re going to need them.
If you’re an educator, Randy’s website includes a free downloadable teaching guide for using his book in your classroom.
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
Jennifer Hillier is a Filipino Canadian suspense/thriller writer who proves that the nicest people can still write the most harrowing, disturbing stories. She has a good-sized backlist of standalones, but the book that stands out most for me is Jar of Hearts. I read this book two years ago and random scenes still pop into my head unbidden, haunting me. It won the 2018 Winner of the ITW Thriller Award for Best Hardcover Novel and was nominated for the Anthony and Macavity Awards, and made a slew of “Best of” lists.
It’s a story of twisted love, grief, the consequences of one’s actions, and what happens when you try to keep too many secrets buried.
Trese graphic novel series by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo
Trese is an award-winning comic book series and was recently adapted into an animated Netflix series, available in both English and Tagalog! The comics and animated series follow the exploits of Alexandra Trese, a detective who deals with crimes of a supernatural origin. These graphic novels are not only riveting crime fiction horror, but also a great introduction to Manila, the city’s urban myths, and Filipino folklore and mythology.
“When the sun sets in the city of Manila, don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly-lit side of the metro, where aswang run the most-wanted kidnapping rings, where kapre are the kingpins of crime, and engkantos slip through the cracks and steal your most precious possessions. When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese.”