May 12, 2019
FOR the most part, crime fiction, also called the “whodunit,” is considered escapist entertainment. After all, it follows a formula. Crime — most often murder — serves as the centerpiece of the story, whose main character is usually a detective or expert of some sort who is guaranteed to catch the perpetrator. Consider: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant sleuth Sherlock Holmes closes every case, Stieg Larsson’s hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander never fails to dish out justice, and so on.
In her paper “Murder as Social Criticism,” professor Catherine Nickerson theorizes: “The world of the detective novel is a place of untimely death, cruelty, suspicion and betrayal. If detective fiction is a literature of escape, why would anyone want to be transported to such anxious locales? Perhaps, detective fiction produces its pleasurable effects by allowing us to feel that no matter how overwhelming our own situations seem, something much worse is happening to someone else.”
The Newspaper Widow (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House; 238 pages; 2017) by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard may be classified as crime fiction, but it doesn’t really follow the formula — and that, in this case, is a very good thing. The opening scene of Brainard’s murder mystery, set in the small town of Ubec in Cebu province, indicates that this isn’t your usual detective novel.
“In the summer of 1909, Ubec was overrun by rats. Rodents larger than cats scampered throughout the seaside city, fearless of man even during the daytime when the scorching sun shone down on them exposing their hideousness — their wiry brown fur, long snouts, and naked tails as long as their bodies,” it reads.
Brainard’s disturbingly vivid introduction serves as a warning that people are not always what they seem, and there are far worse things that could happen to a town than a rat infestation. In fact, the rodents were the reason for the discovery of Father Nicolas Zafra’s body. The novel’s title character, the quietly tenacious Ines Maceda, ends up covering the story for The Ubec Daily. The paper is something that Ines inherits from her late husband, the cerebral Pablo.
Ines becomes more involved in the investigation of the priest’s murder when her son Andres is identified as the main suspect. In her attempt to clear her son’s name, Ines knocks over a few cans of worms and what-not. Thankfully, Brainard does not resort to cheap tricks when it comes to the novel’s dark revelations.
“My original intention had been to write a mystery, but I rely too much on character and character development more than the plot, and so I present a novel that is more about Ines Maceda than it is about the mystery of the dead priest,” she explains.
In this sense, The Newspaper Widow follows crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler’s perspective on the genre. In his critical essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler asserts: “Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have and, in fact, has a good deal of sociological implication.”
The other quality that makes The Newspaper Widow stand out is that even the supporting characters are fully fleshed out. And they’re not just the basic personas, either. For instance, the one who becomes the title character’s unexpected best friend is a French expatriate named Melisande Moreau, who also happens to be the town’s most sought-after dress designer. Brainard gives Melisande the sauciest lines. In one scene, the Frenchwoman tells Ines: “I should go. I have to finish the mayor’s wife’s gown. She’s in the Maria Elena procession of the carnival. You know she is big-boned and it took me a while to come up with the right design, but finally I discovered that the accent has to be on her big bosom. She has beautiful breasts, so we have some cleavage, and we have to tell all eyes to look there…and not elsewhere.” Ultimately, it is Melisande who convinces Ines that she should think of The Ubec Daily as her own instead of just something that was left behind by her husband.
Then there’s a character named Juan dela Cruz, whose common name belies his extraordinary reality. Brainard writes: “People learned that Juan dela Cruz was the only son of the owner of Sandoval Rum and that father and son were like oil and water. His father had wanted Juan to go to business school, but Juan preferred fine arts and music. His father had pressured him to marry the daughter of his business partner, an unacceptable situation for Juan. Juan’s mother finally sold some of her jewelry to finance her son’s studies at the Reial Academia Catalana de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi in Barcelona.”
Juan goes on to fall in love with a Spaniard named Esteban Magri. The couple live in Ubec and are well-respected members of the community. The only real problem they encounter is when Juan also becomes a suspect in Father Zafra’s murder.
Aside from its complex characters, The Newspaper Widow also contains a lot of historical detail. These include even the most disturbing things, such as instruments of torture. Brainard writes: “The garrote, an all-time Spanish favorite, was used for capital punishment during the Spanish time, and for a few years, the American military government availed of the garrote for executions.
“The principle behind garroting was simple: Crush the larynx while applying pressure to the victim’s back. All you needed was a chair with a back rest and a neck clamp which could be tightened by crank, wheel, or hand, thereby strangling the victim.”
The Newspaper Widow may not have a flashy detective as its protagonist, but it is definitely crime fiction that’s a cut above the usual whodunits. Thanks to Brainard’s elegant prose and insights, it’s also a social commentary that attempts to shine the light on the dark corners of organized religion. It does not demonize the Church, but it recognizes the fact that there are a few demons posing as angels within it.
Brainard’s masterpiece also reminds us that in life, things are not always resolved as neatly as we would like them to be. There’s a clear demarcation between good and bad, but there are also a lot of gray areas that we have to learn to navigate.
The Newspaper Widow costs P400 and is available in leading bookstores.
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