As a lifelong mystery fan, I was thrilled to discover the contemporary crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles by Singapore-based Filipino author F.H. Batacan. The mystery is set in Payatas, Manila, Philippines, where Gus Saenz, a local Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist, notices a pattern in murders of young boys over the past year. He raises the matter with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI – the Philippine equivalent of the FBI) and investigates with the assistance of his friend and protegee Jerome Lucero, another Jesuit priest and a psychologist. I read a lot of crime fiction, but Smaller and Smaller Circles is the first contemporary police procedural-type mystery that I’ve read by a Filipino author, and I found it a fascinating glimpse into the investigative culture of Manila.
There are so many things I loved about this mystery. First, as I said, I love the glimpse into the detective culture of Manila. Having grown up there, I suppose I already knew some of the things mentioned in the book, particularly how crimes, even murders, are rarely given much police power unless the victim was someone wealthy. Still, Gus’ insight about serial killers was an eye opener for me — there aren’t really any stories of serial killers in the Philippines which may make one believe that serial killing just doesn’t happen in the country. (In this case, “serial killing” means in the Western sense of a series of murders committed by a single individual for personal motivations and outside of organized crime or political reasons.) But Gus points out that given how Philippine police doesn’t track statistics on missing persons and pads statistics on suspicious deaths, it’s possible that serial killings do occur; they’re just not being noticed.
I also loved the characters — I found the father/son dynamic between Gus and Jerome sweet, and the occasional glimpses into their pasts made me curious to learn more about them. I’ve often said that mystery series are made or broken on the strength of the lead detective/s, and while Smaller and Smaller Circles is a standalone, I’d definitely love to read more of Gus and Jerome’s cases. I also enjoyed seeing characters who are priests fulfilling secular roles, in this case as an anthropologist and a psychologist. I realize this is showing how little I know of the Catholic Church, but I didn’t realize priests could be professional scientists as well. I’d studied at a Jesuit university, and remember doing a double take the first time I saw a priest professor who walked into class without the white robe priests wear for Mass. (Prior to that, I’d studied at a school run by nuns, and all the nun teachers I saw wore their full habit, so I supposed I expected priests to do the same.) So it was pretty cool for me to read about priests performing autopsies and profiling serial killers. More than that, Gus and Jerome were just really strong characters, and it was fun to see them interact.
One can hardly have a mystery involving members of the Church without at least mentioning the elephant in the room — the accounts coming out of priests abusing children and the Vatican covering up the scandal rather than dealing with it. Batacan not only mentions it; she makes it a major subplot. Gus has been trying for years to get a predatory priest fired (defrocked?), but, due to some wealthy patrons, this priest instead becomes the head of a charity shelter for orphans and street children, giving him even more access to potential victims. This subplot runs parallel to the series of murders; Gus’ advocacy leads to some professional challenges for him, but more than that, the pattern of this priest’s continued stay in power mirrors the injustice that surrounds the murders themselves. In both cases, Gus must stand up against the victimization of those who are helpless to fight back.
The politics around the murder investigation were also really interesting. I enjoyed seeing the power dynamics between the members of the NBI, and the political machinations of various other characters. Batacan’s story may be full of indignation at the injustices of income inequality, but I like that she doesn’t simply make all the rich people bad guys. For example, a wealthy politician comes through at a pivotal moment, and a Manila socialite is clearly distressed when she has to cut funding for a good cause.
I read Smaller and Smaller Circles initially because I wanted to support Filipino writing and also because I was curious as such a book in Philippine literature seemed new and innovative to me. Now I’m glad I read it because it simply is a fantastic, well-written mystery with characters you’ll wish you had more time to get to know. I highly recommend it to mystery fans.
I recently learned that it has been adapted into film! This isn’t much of a surprise to me as even while reading it, I kept thinking about how great it would translate to the screen (albeit hopefully with the more gruesome aspects edited out). I can’t seem to find a trailer online yet (here’s the Facebook page and Twitter account), and I don’t know if it’ll screen in North America (fingers crossed!), but if you live in the Philippines, do keep an eye out for it. I hear it’ll be released in 2017.
Where to Find It
I don’t often post links to retailers but, as I was initially afraid I’d have to wait until a trip to the Philippines to get a copy, I wanted to give my North American readers a heads up in case you think the same. Thankfully, Penguin Random House published the paperback in 2016, so I was thrilled to find copies fairly easily online at Indigo and Amazon.ca (the original 2002 edition by the University of the Philippines Press is a bit harder to find). And if you happen to live in Toronto, the Toronto Public Library also carries the ebook and the print book.