Sunday, August 23, 2015


What happens when police procedures fall apart? A serial killer thrives.

In F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, the year is 1997. Once each month, someone leaves the mutilated body of a pre-teen boy in Manila’s Quezon City dump.

The killer has stripped off the victim’s face, cut out the victim’s heart, and cut off the victim’s genitals.

The police don’t know the serial killings are happening. They have no central database. They keep inadequate reports. They make no effort to look for the common characteristics in recurring crimes.

The murdered boys are ragpickers, people who search the dumps for food and items to sell. The victims count for nothing. All the cops care about are high profile, easy-to-solve cases. And even with those, they don’t care if they get it right as long as they get good publicity.

Two Catholic priests, Father Gus Saenz (a highly trained forensic anthropologist), and his younger friend Father Jerome Lucero (a psychologist), set out to collect the data and solve the crimes.

The two priests are incensed at the Catholic church. The church has evidence against an influential clergyman who abuses young boys. The hierarchy moves the abuser from parish to parish leaving him in charge of an orphanage. He has access to an endless number of victims.

Smaller and Smaller Circles seethes with rage. Near the end of the book, one character says,

“You tell a few rich people that a priest is abusing children? They may care, but they’re unlikely to do anything about it. But you tell them that same priest is stealing their money? Sit back and watch how fast they move.”

At one point, a chapter heading quotes Mark 7:6-9-- “And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’” (I used the book's punctuation of this quotation.)

Fathers Saenz and Lucero have at least two allies, the interim director of the national police and a local TV reporter.

The two priests solve the crime by going back and reconstructing as much of the neglected police procedure as they can.

According to its Wikipedia entry, Smaller and Smaller Circles won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999, the Philippine National Book Award 2002, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award 2003.

I found the book to be excellently written, disturbing, and, in some places, so brutal that it was hard to read.


Harper said...

This is one that I MUST read. Thanks for the posting. Also, I have enjoyed visiting and browsing through your fine blog. Now, though, may I be bold enough to change the subject and invite you to visit my blog? I am a retired federal government court reporter and paralegal, and I am an avid reader and reviewer of crime, detective, mystery, espionage, and historical fiction; the new edition of my blog, "Crimes in the Library," is where you will able to find regularly posted book reviews and commentary. Here is the address: I hope you will stop by and comment often. Thanks, Harper

Joe Barone said...

Welcome to the mystery story blogging universe. I find good books I would never have known about by reading other people's blogs.

George said...

This sounds intriguing despite the high violence quotient. I don't doubt that these kinds of crimes occur in every corner of the world. I'm still disturbed about that truck full of dead immigrants found outside of Germany.

Joe Barone said...

George, I may be more sensitive about violence than some readers. This was an excellent and a very readable book.