Kate’s Books: Smaller and Smaller Circles

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I can’t believe it took me this long to get my hands on this book! The Philippines’ first crime novel was published back in 2002  by the University of the Philippines Press, and then reprinted four times, selling over six thousand copies. In 2015, author F.H. Batacan (whom I mention in my list of Filipino authors you need to check out) wrote an expanded version of the book – it was originally a mere 155 pages, but the new version clocked in at 353 pages – and sold publishing rights to the New York-based Soho Press. A movie is currently in production and will be released later this year.

Are you a fan of police procedurals or cop shows? Like reading about detectives solving murder mysteries? Then read on, friend. This book is for you.

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The plot:

Set in 1997, Smaller and Smaller Circles follows two Jesuit priests, Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, in their quest to apprehend a murderer targeting young boys from the infamous Payatas slums in Quezon City.

The victims are young beggars, petty thieves and small-time crooks, street vendors; members of an already marginalized class  whom no one will miss. They’re targeted by a vicious monster who drugs them, takes them away, butchers them like animals, and then leaves their carcasses behind.

The police are incompetent, the National Bureau of Investigation are unconcerned. The world didn’t care about them when they were alive, and it certainly doesn’t care about them now that they’re dead. Enter famed forensic anthropologist Father Gus and his protégé Father Jerome. They’re convinced that the killings are not the random acts of violence so prevalent in slum areas that the authorities think they are, but rather the work of a rarer breed of criminal, one Philippine law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to handle: a serial killer.

What I liked:

  • First of all, I liked that it was set in the Philippines, written by a Filipino author, and features Filipino characters. You so rarely see people of color – of your own nationality, ethnicity, or race – in books published by international media that when you do, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed seeing the names of places I knew and I’d been to, food that I’d tasted, words and languages that I’d spoken,  traditions and aspects of culture that were my own. It’s no small thing, being a person of color and seeing something familiar in a book.
  • The themes of corruption in the Philippine government, the distance between the poor and the rich in Metro Manila, and the irresponsibility – at times, downright criminality – of the Catholic Church got me hard. This book gave voice to a lot of thoughts I have regarding how our government seems to not care about the poor, and how those in power will do anything to make sure they stay there. I can’t say much more without revealing the plot – not to mention key facets of Father Gus Saenz’s character – but suffice it to say that if you’re already angry with the powers-that-be in this country, reading this book will make you angrier.
  • We are treated to a well-written, strong cast of characters. Father Gus and Father Jerome, of course, are as interesting as they come. After all, you don’t exactly run into crime-solving priests everyday. But the rest of Batacan’s creations are every bit as organic and well-rounded. You have Lastimosa, the old, belligerent Director of the NBI who believes in justice for everyone, and who brings the two priests onto the case because he doesn’t believe that the NBI is taking the deaths seriously. There’s also the arrogant Ben Arcinas, an NBI agent who regularly butts heads with Saenz. Lastly, we have reporter Joanna Bonifacio, a former student of Saenz’s who calls in favors to help the two priests solve the mystery.
  • I adored the focus on the resources our law enforcement agencies lack. We have no national criminal database, no storage for evidence, little to no online records, and definitely no inter-agency cooperation. Any resources the PNP, the NBI, or other agencies have is, at best, shoddily kept, and at worst, outright neglected.

What I didn’t like:

  • Batacan’s writing style is very simplistic. I, however, recognize that this is a preference of mine. Others may prefer her more straightforward method of storytelling.
  • The ending was kind of unsurprising, but then again, most mystery novels are.

Verdict:

4.5/5. A good, solid read for anyone wanting to expand their mystery collection, a riveting story that also serves as an indictment of the power structure in Metro Manila, and proof positive that Filipino authors can make it on the international market.

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