Friday, May 31, 2024

Smaller and Smaller Circles


A Jesuit priest with postgraduate credentials in Forensics – a field which continues to be a niche specialization in the Philippines – Gus Saenz is the go-to person of the National Bureau of Investigation every time his expertise is required by the department. The latest cadaver ending up on his operating table once belonged to a young boy whose face has been scraped off his skull; his heart and genitals both removed. Assisted by his protégé and fellow priest Jerome Lucero, he delves deeper into the mystery and previous murders characterized by the same modus operandi, leading them to a potential serial killer preying on the poor and malnourished young boys of Payatas, a dumpsite that serves as residence and source of meager income for poverty-stricken folks. Facing resistance from a non-cooperative NBI personnel, the two priests rely on an unlikely ally, Saenz’s former student in France, broadcast journalist Joanna Bonifacio. As the NBI presents a suspect who was only tortured to provide a confession, the trio must race against time before the real killer claims another victim.

The killer is only seen in action once you reach page 160 as another victim is caught by surprise. By page 225, the murderer is deliberately identified. While Smaller and Smaller Circles is a crime novel, you don’t get to see much action that would liken it to a slasher flick screenplay. Instead, most of the plot revolves around the investigation by the two priests as they put two and two together, slowly but surely leading you to the culprit. The author throws in a couple of red herrings early on which gives you an interesting read full of speculations. As mentioned however, the killer is randomly introduced out of the blue when you reach page 225.

But it was still a fun read despite the author simply playing around with our rusty Sherlock Holmes sleuthing. Batacan’s prose is quite easy to read. Instead of coming up with verbose exposition, she opts for simple narration and lots of playful banter between the two priests. This makes them all the more endearing that you actually start rooting for them and what you get in the end is some sort of buddy priest thriller along with dashes of church and state politics here and there, people jockeying for position, and a rather gloomy view of the country’s societal realities that are just too hard to look straight in the eye.

My favorite page would be 240 which would have been a simple narration moving the plot forward by having the two priests visit the victims’ families and break the tragic news to them, except that Batacan decides to switch the perspectives by introducing you to the victims’ mothers and having them tell you about their relationships with their son while they go about with their chores. Every narration ends with the two priests arriving but the author no longer elaborates and ends the scene there. It’s powerful and poignant because she opts to humanize those victims by giving them a face, a story, a final glimpse on a shred of their humanity.

That is the sad part in narratives like this, fiction or nonfiction. The victims always become mere statistics, numbers on a white board or news report as if they ceased to be human beings with stories to tell once they ended up dead at the hands of their murderers. This is also one aspect that makes Smaller and Smaller Circles unique. Even the way the killer is revealed, own subplot running parallel to that of the other characters and us knowing the identity even before the two priests do, is unique. While the murderer is the main antagonist, the character is also humanized and given a backstory instead of being a mere obligatory villain.

The epilogue hints at further adventures for Gus Saenz, but of the boring church politics kind. Aside from the serial killer, a member or two of the Church are mentioned along with allegations of abuse, no thanks to the sphere of influence that they occupy in the institutional hierarchy. I’ve heard that the author has followed through with a snippet of sorts published in another book which serves as a collection of short stories. In any case, I don’t believe this would be of any interest to many, unless you are a big fan of the Gus Saenz character.

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