New Pi­noy sleuth urged to of­fer hope

Maria Fres-Felix cre­ated In­spec­tor SJ Tua­son af­ter grow­ing up with Nancy Drew and meet­ing an in­spir­ing real-life fe­male cop

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - FRONT PAGE - —STORY BY RUEL S. DE VERA

Wel­come a new Filipino de­tec­tive to fol­low: Po­lice In­spec­tor SJ Tua­son, the pro­tag­o­nist of the book, “Crime­time: In­spec­tor SJ Tua­son Case Files” by Maria L.M. Fres-Felix. “Crime­time” in­tro­duces Tua­son and fea­tures four cases to be solved. Tua­son is a tough but com­pas­sion­ate in­ves­ti­ga­tor, easy to root for.

Crime is some­thing Filipinos live with on a daily ba­sis, but crime an also be em­ployed as a com­pelling el­e­ment in fic­tion, es­pe­cially if you throw in the race to solve the crime as seen in de­tec­tive nov­els. Take for ex­am­ple the 2002 novel “Smaller and Smaller Cir­cles” by F.H. Bat­a­can, in which a Je­suit foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gist who races against time to stop a se­rial killer in Pay­atas.

“Smaller and Smaller Cir­cles” would later be bought and pub­lished by New York-based im­print Soho Crime: A mo­tion pic­ture adap­ta­tion di­rected by Raya Martin will be com­ing to cine­mas soon.

Now, wel­come a new Filipino de­tec­tive to fol­low: Po­lice In­spec­tor SJ Tua­son, the pro­tag­o­nist of the book “Crime­time: In­spec­tor SJ Tua­son Case Files,” by Maria L.M. Fres-Felix and pub­lished by Anvil Pub­lish­ing.

“Crime­time” in­tro­duces Tua­son and fea­tures four cases to be solved. Tua­son is a tough but com­pas­sion­ate in­ves­ti­ga­tor, easy to root for. She cov­ers homi­cide cases in the fic­tional Lake­view area, but clearly op­er­ates in Que­zon City. This QC—she calls its Kyusi in the book—is so real it feels like nonfiction, with so many de­tails that can only come from real-world ex­pe­ri­ence. “Crime­time” feels like FresFelix’s dark love let­ter to the city.

Se­rial re­tiree

Maria Leonida Ma­quera Fres-Felix—Dada to friends— owes the start of her in­ter­est in crime fic­tion to a cer­tain fic­tional teenage sleuth.

“I en­joyed read­ing Nancy Drew as a child and later de­vel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion for mys­tery and crime,” she said.

Fres-Felix has an Eco­nomics de­gree from Univer­sity of the East and a master’s de­gree in De­vel­op­ment Eco­nomics from Williams Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts. She worked at Bangko Sen­tral ng Pilip­inas be­fore re­tir­ing. She came out of re­tire­ment to work in cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Philip­pine De­posit In­sur­ance Cor­po­ra­tion be­fore re­tir­ing again in 2012. “I’m a se­rial re­tiree,” she said with a laugh.

She wrote as much as she could in the time she could find. The award-win­ning writer is the au­thor of three books: the young adult novella “’Sup,” and the short story col­lec­tions “Mak­ing Straight Cir­cles” and “Boy in the Plat­inum Palace and Other Sto­ries.”

She al­ready had some in­ter­est in crime as a sub­ject early on. “Both my ear­lier col­lec­tions had one crime story each, so it was like ex­pand­ing on what was al­ready there,” she ex­plained. “As you may know, as­pir­ing writ­ers are told to write the sto­ries they want to read, and I did just that. I guess as an econ­o­mist, it would be a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. Eco­nomics, usu­ally called the dis­mal science, is also the science of choice. It dis­sects how con­sumers choose the prod­ucts they buy, and how busi­nesses choose the ones they pro­duce. Crime fic­tion can also be seen as a fic­tion of choice, where the de­tec­tive and the read­ers choose who among the sus­pects is the cul­prit. Crime fic­tion can also pro­vide a means of so­cial com­men­tary be­cause crime knows no bound­aries. And yes, most im­por­tantly, it’s fun to write.”

She re­ally got into writ­ing af­ter her first re­tire­ment in 1998. “On and off, I was the driver and

yaya for my daugh­ter, so I would write when I was wait­ing for her,” she re­called. She also took up classes at the Univer­sity of the Philippines. Her re­turn to work in­ter­rupted her writ­ing, but took to writ­ing full-time af­ter her sec­ond re­tire­ment in 2012.

“Crime­time” be­gan as just one story and evolved on its own. “I didn’t re­ally in­tend to have a short story col­lec­tion,” Fres-Felix said. “But I wrote one and it was so much fun, I kept writ­ing, and then sud­denly I had a col­lec­tion.”

She said it was given that the book would be set in the Philippines and what­ever she didn’t know, she re­searched. She vis­ited po­lice sta­tions and talked to cops.

Flawed jus­tice sys­tem

In the process, Fres-Felix crafted an ut­terly be­liev­able char­ac­ter who gets stuck in traf­fic in her beat-up Sen­tra, meets un­co­op­er­a­tive wit­nesses and is ham­pered by a lack of tech­nol­ogy, thus re­flect­ing the chal­lenges posed by a flawed Philip­pine jus­tice sys­tem. “This is not tele­vi­sion. I wanted to show that not ev­ery­thing you see on TV is real. The kind of show you get from the States and some­times Canada, ev­ery­thing is there. But here, no, they still use the phys­i­cal log­book.”

Out of that emerged the hero­ine. “I wanted a fe­male de­tec­tive be­cause I wanted to show that, even if we’re hope­less and many peo­ple don’t trust the po­lice, there re­ally are very good men and women who are try­ing to do the right thing.” That’s how SJ Tua­son was born.

Fres-Felix kept work­ing on the Tua­son char­ac­ter un­til she was just right. “Orig­i­nally, she was a lit­tle bit harsher. But then I met this lady in­spec­tor who was my re­source per­son. I soft­ened and toned down the char­ac­ter be­cause her in­ten­tion was re­ally to help and she was so soft­spo­ken.”

In Fres-Felix’s de­tailed and clear prose, “Crime­time” shows Tua­son over­com­ing all kinds of ob­sta­cles to solve the mur­ders as­signed to her, in­clud­ing a pho­to­bomber in Que­zon Memo­rial Cir­cle who proves to be dead, a vic­tim clad in a Princess Ami­dala cos­tume, and even a case that has to do with Tua­son’s past. Read­ers are driven to eval­u­ate the sus­pects and the clues just as Tua­son does. She sub­mit­ted the man­u­script to Anvil in March 2016 and “Crime­time” ar­rived on book­shelves in April 2017.

Fres-Felix is cir­cling a pos­si­ble se­quel for sub­mis­sion later this year even though she didn’t orig­i­nally think Tua­son would be a re­cur­ring char­ac­ter.

“I had so much fun with Tua­son, I just de­cided to keep work­ing with her. “This time it’s go­ing to be a full-length novel in­stead of sev­eral sto­ries.

—LEO SABANGAN

Maria Fres-Felix

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