French & Forensics: Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan

Crime-fighting Jesuit priests, a Payatas dumpsite, bad coffee, good French and a persistent toothache—these are the makings of a witty, fast-paced and intelligent multi-award-winning detective novel.

Smaller and Smaller Circles takes you to Payatas, a place in Metro Manila known for its mountainous range of garbage, and the low horizon lined with galvanized iron roofs of shanties and a loving layer of industrial smoke.

Here, we meet Fr. Augustus “Gus” Saenz, SJ—a Jesuit priest who does autopsies, cool, composed, tall and handsome, likes classic rock and European music, clever with the tongue—and his once-student, now sidekick, Fr. Jerome Lucero, SJ. He is a clinical psychologist, whenever he’s not saying mass, vomiting, or honking horns at traffic jams.

Gus discovers a pattern in the recent autopsies he’s done at Payatas, and claims them to be serial killings. With the Philippines’ intelligence community weak and skeptical, Gus and Jerome have to prove a point before any more killings happen. And so the chase for the Payatas whodunit commences . . .

An excerpt from Smaller and Smaller Circles
FH Batacan gives you a glimpse into the mind of our killer, between every other chapter.
It is sick, twisted, and I love it.

For a Filipino, this is definitely new and entirely refreshing. When Felisa H. Batacan submitted her manuscript for the Palanca awards in 1999, hers was the first of the kind in the Filipino literary scene. It claims to be successfully “popular and literary”, and record-breaking. Unlike most indie novels in the Philippines that have only one run of about a thousand copies, Smaller and Smaller Circles has been reprinted four times, making a total of 6,000 copies printed and sold.

I am a proud owner, one of the few-some thousands.

But as a novel, we have to use that big fish in a small pond metaphor to explain what it’s like.

It’s just new to the Philippines, to have a story like this and for a Manilenyo to imagine a serial killer possibly be eating turon at the same carinderia, buy 5-peso Coke at the same sari-sari store, and basically walk home through the same dark eskinita. It’s an entirely different experience from reading a Grisham novel simply because of the scenery. And it’s different from watching CSI, because you can’t just get fingerprints or DNA samples and have things done. The government here is poor and its citizens, poorer. There is no fancy technology, not even a comprehensive database. Manila is a whole different crime scene.  And definitely, it’s new in Philippine literature to have a Jesuit priest and his students defy the inefficient police system.

But it isn’t new, for the rest of the world. For one, the priest reminds me of Shiro, Rin’s father from Ao no Exorcist. But mostly, I am reminded of Sherlock Holmes, Metro Manila Edition. Gus is a smart man, backed up by a rich family. He is tall; Jerome is short. Jerome is a doctor. He likes to pick at the times when his supposedly mature and calm mentor starts to act like a child. The police system is inefficient, and they take pride when their own version of Lastrade, Atty. Ben Arcinas, is disproved. They work on their own, and have connections to get the information faster than the NBI.

It looks like fan-fiction of a well-educated Otaku. It sounds like elements of a pretty normal novel, if you’ve read enough crime, thriller and suspense fiction. And everything seems fairly plausible, however improbable.

So aside from the time that Smaller and Smaller Circles was written and published, what makes it so special that it received the highly coveted Palanca, among many other awards?

The thing is—the thing that readers don’t easily see is—it is so masterfully written. It is immensely tricky to write something like this, what with the research and required knowledge and familiarity. FH Batacan is lucky to have worked for the Philippine intelligence. And it is so short, that its length itself is a carefully crafted element. Any longer and the novel would have been boring and worn out; any shorter and it would be a short story. The novel is well-condensed, and her characters know exactly what to say and when to say them. She knows when to paint the picture of the scene, and when to focus on the movement of her people. She knows when she has to write a witty dialogue, and when she has to get to the point. She knows when things should happen, where they should happen, like a god of her own universe. Batacan just knows how to make a reader keep on going.

It’s difficult to make crime sound realistic, and crime-fighting priests even more so.

It’s difficult to write this, and what a writer would find more clever than her characters’ dialogues would be how she thought of it all up in the first place.

It’s difficult to write a thriller novel set in the slums of Manila, and yet she did.

And that is exactly what she was awarded for: her writing, masterfully crafting every detail down to the very last punctuation. Even the toothache makes sense, and the French dialogues that I wish I understood, and the homemade turon and arroz caldo. Every word used to illustrate the scene–none is out of place. It is the novel that made no mistakes.

It is the novel you would wish you could write.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is the novel you would never wish to change.

Ten out of ten.


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