I first became acquainted with the fictional Jesuit priest Gus Saenz when I found an F.H. Batacan short story (“Comforter of the Afflicted”) featuring his exploits in a short story collection titled Manila Noir. That was in mid 2013 and I had been rather listlessly searching for her 2002 novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles ever since, having noted that Father Gus was that novel’s main character. I learned, too, that Smaller and Smaller Circles had been very controversial when published in the Philippines and that it had won major awards there, but I had pretty much given up on finding a copy.
And then I saw that Soho Press, publisher of much of the best crime fiction being written these days, would be releasing an expanded version of the novel in August 2015. According to Soho, the difference between the original version of the novel and this newly expanded one is that Batacan takes the time to tell “more of the priests’ story.” For me, memorable, fully fleshed characters are just as important to a crime story as the plot, so I consider myself lucky that this is the version of the novel I finally got to read.
In Smaller and Smaller Circles, author Batacan, a former member of the Philippine intelligence community herself, exposes the rather absurd notion of Filipino law enforcement that it is impossible for a serial killer to exist in their country. Numerous theories have been offered to explain this hypothesis, but Batacan is buying none of them. Rather, she says, the fact that a serial killer has never been identified in the Philippines is entirely attributable to the failure of law enforcement to protect the country’s poorest citizens - and the utter failure of the system to investigate, and otherwise take seriously, crimes against the poor. Tellingly, record keeping and cross-referencing is not a high priority in the Philippines, it seems.
In addition to being a Jesuit priest, Father Gus Saenz is also an eminently qualified forensic anthropologist. He is so good at what he does, in fact, that his skills have been utilized by the National Bureau of Investigation in the investigation of some of the country’s highest profile cases. But not everyone in the Bureau welcomes his help – Gus does have a way of stepping on toes that don’t move out of his way quickly enough – and even with support from the Bureau’s Director, Francisco Lastimosa, the relationship between the priest and the police is an unnecessarily complicated one.
But now, on a regular basis, someone is killing little boys, mutilating their bodies, and dumping what remains in one of Manila’s garbage dumps, and Gus knows that it is all the nasty work of one man – the very type of killer that authorities still consider an impossibility. With the help of some good men, including that of his young protégé, Father Jerome Lucerno, Father Gus is determined to identify and stop the killer before he can kill again.
Smaller and Smaller Circles is not a particularly difficult case for readers to solve even before it all clicks for Father Saenz, and its ending is rather predictable. But the novel is long on character development, it offers a unique setting and atmosphere, and it leaves the reader wishing for more crime mysteries featuring Father Gus and Father Jerome. Here’s hoping it happens.