Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Smaller and Smaller Circles (FH Batacan)

With its command of logic, suspense, and contemporary Filipino elements, FH Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles is definitely worth the accolades and awards heaped upon it. This winner of the 1999 Palanca Grand Prize and 2002 National Book Award is a well-crafted Pinoy version of CSI, with two Jesuit priests investigating the grisly deaths of adolescent boys in Payatas. Their investigation convinces them that this is the work of a serial killer, one given to removing the hearts and genitals of his young victims and peeling their faces off. Lacking a team and proper resources, the priests (Fr. Gus Saenz is a forensic anthropologist while Fr. Jerome Lucero is a clinical psychologist) must rely on their instincts and their intelligence--as in real life, it's challenging to work with local law enforcement--to catch this troubled murderer.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms Batacan's carefully-plotted narrative. Carefully interspersed between the chapters are the killer's thoughts, the increasing panic and mania of the hidden self. Foreshadowing is done with subtlety but an avid mystery reader's Spidey senses would be set off by a fair number of them. What works even more for me is how Ms Batacan included the point-of-view of the different people around the Jesuits, from the NBI's investigative team head to the gutsy crime reporter who knows how to go after a story to the stricken victim's families. By not shying away from revealing the injustices committed by an imperfect system, she manages to depict tragedy with an almost journalistic stance, but one that is not devoid of the Filipino's penchant for emotion.

The blurb at the back of the book lauds it for being both 'popular' and 'literary', and I couldn't agree more. Smaller and Smaller Circles is an evocative and sharply-written novel that paves the way for similar intelligent crime stories from Filipinos.

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NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books. I'm hoping to reach the Mythic Crime Buster Level (6-8 books); one mystery novel per month (it runs from January to June) definitely sounds like a comfortable pace for me.

8 comments:

gatheringbooks said...

I've been meaning to read this book for some time now. I should dedicate more time on local literature.
Thanks for joining. Can't wait to read more of your reviews.

dementedchris said...

I bought my copy at NBS, but I've seen a copy of Smaller and Smaller Circles at Powerbooks. Hope you can read it soon!

When I first saw your challenge, I knew it was something I would love to do. :) Thanks for hosting; I will definitely read more mystery books and write more reviews!

Tina said...

This was one of the books assigned to us in lit class in college. This wasn't assigned to our group, but I borrowed my roommate's copy so I can read it. Unfortunately, the book report happened before I could finish reading so I was spoiled at the ending. :/

I liked this one a lot, though -- I loved the idea of sleuthing priests. :D

dementedchris said...

I enjoyed that element, too! I think it's not far-fetched at all that academics like Fr Gus and Fr Jerome are asked to help the government out. I liked that even though they were men of the cloth, they didn't necessarily have to tackle mysteries about the the Holy Grail or Marian apparitions.

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

This really displays my ignorance about our local literature. Very sad. I should really be more active in the filipino blogging community - fantastic review! I should make it a point to purchase a lot of local lit when I come visit this June/July.

I am a little intrigued by the fact that the CSI elements (scientific, that is) are merged with the most unlikely of all 'crimebusters' there are in most books: priests, men of faith. Was there a science/faith struggle throughout the book, as they search for evidence? Was it a recurring theme/issue?

Thank you for participating. We really appreciate it.

dementedchris said...

It's definitely a pleasure to participate. :) I've always loved mysteries and this was the perfect excuse to read more. Having a Filipino mystery to read just sweetened the deal! I hope you find more good stuff when you come to visit; I've vowed to read more Filipino books this year as well.


I really felt that the protagonists' academic side was highlighted more than their religious one, and I didn't pick up on any science vs faith themes. Perhaps being men of faith made them more sympathetic to the different aspects of the case but for the most part it was their calm and careful logic that propelled the plot. It's actually pretty interesting to see them wade through the evidence! I hope I haven't spoiled the book for you. :)

fantaghiro23 said...

I read this book because we included it in the third year high school booklist at Ateneo. Very glad I did. Reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, but this time with the forensics side.

Agree with it being both popular and literary. I think it's one of the few books that achieves both.

fantaghiro23 said...

I read this book because we included it in the third year high school booklist at Ateneo. Very glad I did. Reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, but this time with the forensics side.

Agree with it being both popular and literary. I think it's one of the few books that achieves both.