Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan
The body of a young boy is found in Payatas, a massive dump where people, especially young boys, scavenge for their existence. The severely mutilated body has been brought to Father Gus Saenz, a Jesuit priest and respected forensic anthropologist. However, this isn’t a singular case and Father Gus, along with his friend, psychologist Father Jerome Lucero, is asked by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation to help find the killer.
One should not bypass the initial page, or the subsequent transition pages, as these provide insight and a bit of humanity to the killer and, in fact, add to the story’s suspense. However, this is also one of those times when the prologue really works. In the midst of horror, there is note of tenderness and caring which establishes the tone of the story.
Batacan has created a strong cast of characters. Father Gus is frustrated by the Church turning a blind eye to a pedophile priest, Father Jerome who started as Saenz’ student and is now his friend; Director Lastimosa, the elderly head of the NBI, the very egotistic and ambitious Attorney Ben Arcinas, and reporter Joanna Bonifacio who was also a former student of Saenz. The combination works to bring the story truly to life, and the animosity between some of the characters is palpable; a sign of excellent writing.
It is interesting to learn about the culture and policing in the Philippines. One can’t help but notice the focus on bathing and snacks, but we also learn of the complete inadequacy of their record keeping, technology, and inability to deal with missing persons. Much of that goes to explaining why the Director of the NBI would turn to the Father Saenz for help.
The author’s descriptions are so well done yet often difficult to read…”the man’s left shoulder touches the woman’s right one, but the corresponding hips don’t touch, as though they’re used to leaving room there for a child…”, particularly when dealing the sights and smells of the dump as contrasted by the evening at the opera with the elite. The contrast is very well done. Batacan’s inclusion of the meeting with the mothers and families of the child victims lends a poignancy and humanity to the story.
There are three, equally important, threads to the story; the murders, political power-mongering, and the irresponsibility of the Church’s insufficient handling of internal corruption and criminality; particularly pedophilia. The forensic information is fascinating. It also provides a very small look into the dictatorship under which the Philippines had previously lived.
Batacan’s dialogue is so well done. The very natural…”You have to wonder what ones on in people’s heads.” “No, I don’t,” Saenz says, pouring Jerome a cup of coffee. “And I’m a much happier man for it. Come, sit, sit. No use complaining about the world’s free press-we fought for it, we got it, now we have to live with the nonsense that it spews out.”, and often humorous, exchanges between the two priests provides much-needed lightness to a very dark story, and solidifies the close friendship between the two men.
While many may guess the identity of the killer, and the events of the climax are rather unsurprising, it is very powerful, effective, moving and not without a good degree of suspense. The offshoot is sadly common everywhere, yet confirms that we must hope, always hope, for change.
“Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a very good, well-written book, and one which is a very affecting read.
SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES (Myst-FF Saenz and Lucero-Manila-Contemp) - VG+
Batacan, F.H. – 1st book
Soho Crime – Aug, 2015