Book review: Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan is a Filipino crime novel which has won numerous literary awards: the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999, the National Book Award 2002, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award 2003. It was first published by UP Press, but the edition I bought was a revised version published by Soho Press New York. It has been made to a movie with the same title in 2016 starring Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero. It claimed to be the 'First Filipino Crime Novel' and since that's a genre I like, of course I bought the book.

The story is about a series of gruesome murders of young boys in the Payatas Dumpsite, and two well-educated Jesuit priests aid the investigations. Father Gus Saenz is a forensic anthropologist and his protege and former student, Father Jerome Lucero, helps him in solving the case. The killings have a pattern: the victims' faces are ripped off, the heart and genitals removed, and they all seem to occur the first Saturday of the month.

The cast of characters include NBI officials, both honest and corrupt, and members of the media. The two priests who have honest intentions are delayed by politics and red tape. The description of the atmosphere and environment is familiar and distinctly Filipino. It's an accurate portrayal of the imperfect justice system in the Philippines. The two priests try their best to catch the suspect. The serial killer doesn't appear until the last parts of the book, but for me, the character felt... flat. The motivation behind his actions was shown, but I felt that he could have been 'explored' and developed more.

It is a good book, however, it kind of fell short of my expectations. I'm probably just comparing it to American crime novels and serial-killer stories, and I was watching True Detective with its rich imagery, suspenseful action, religious philosophizing, and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. I was kind of expecting some discussion on religion and more action. Its not bad, but maybe not for me.

Though, I'd love to see the two priests solve another crime in another setting with more conflict between them. Anyway, for a crime novel, it is still an achievement and I do hope that more Filipino writers write in the crime genre with a local setting. I mean, even now there's a lot of crimes going on in the country, potential crime writers won't run out of ideas and inspiration. This novel is a great start.

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