Smaller and Smaller Circles
Press (August, 2015)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
Mystery tales come from the world over and range across many subgenres, but this is the first we’ve seen from the Philippines. Ms. Batacan presents a unique novel set in the Manila area, particularly the Quezon City sector and focusing on the notorious Payatas dumpsites.
We know that the Philippines is a country rich in culture and history, but also possessed with third world depravity in many of the low income regions. Political corruption and general malaise are also prevalent, and therefore crimes against the poor often go unsolved and even unreported.
Within this social tumult, it’s understandable, albeit unforgivable, that a serial killer preying on slum residents might be overlooked. And so these murders come unannounced to the attention of Fr. Gus Saenz, a Jesuit priest as well as pathologist and medical examiner.
Such a combination of occupations may seem unusual to some, but many priests from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) pursue activities which are non-pastoral. Fr. Gus is aided by his friend and colleague, Fr. Jerome Lucero, who regards the elder priest as a mentor. Both priests teach at the university but medical and forensic avenues are also part of their daily duties.
Fr. Gus performs autopsies on two victims and realizes that young teen boys are being targeted, their corpses mutilated by a fiend. But these boys come from the lowest rung of society, slum dwellers who make a squalid occupation by scavenging through the trash dumps near where they live, and are therefore a forgotten and ignored populace.
Government agencies and local police are also reluctant to consider the inconvenient fact of a deadly predator in their jurisdiction, falling back on old school beliefs that the closely knit familial nature of Philippine culture cannot nurture or contain a serial killer. They therefore throw roadblocks in the priests’ way and attempt to thwart their search for the murderer.
The premise of the stalwart investigator being disavowed by superiors is a common thread of mystery fiction, but Ms. Batacan develops an engaging and fascinating story from this standard meme by embedding the plot within the post-Marcos Philippine culture and government.
The novel is written in the present tense, a fairly new trend. Instead of “Gus entered his office and sat at his desk” we read “Gus enters his office and sits at his desk” which may be slightly distracting to some readers. Ms. Batacan also portrays her principal characters in solid black or white, in that the two priests are almost flawless, dedicated and hard working, with opposing government officials shown as near-stereotypical villains, fat and rude and generally obnoxious. Nuances of character would perhaps have been more realistic than this somewhat over the top imagery.
These small discrepancies do not however lessen the impact of this fine mystery. Smaller and Smaller Circles is highly recommended, and will especially appeal to those readers who enjoy mysteries set in uncommon regions of the world.
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