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Book: Smaller and Smaller Circles
Author: FH Batacan
Published: 2002 University of the Philippines Press

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWhere else in the world would a detective story with priests as main characters work, aside from, perhaps, the Vatican? The Philippines, with its 80% Catholic population, is as good a guess as any. Father Gus Saenz is a Jesuit priest and a highly-regarded forensic anthropologist, two occupations that would seem incongruent but somehow work smoothly. Working with him is his former student, Father Jerome Lucero, who is also a noted clinical psychologist. When a child is found on a dumpsite, eviscerated and decaying, the two are called in to investigate an apparent series of gruesome murders and to catch a rarity in Filipino crime – a serial killer.

The novel is a short one, only 155 pages, and reads fast. In fact, I spent a Sunday morning finishing it, instead of going to mass (which the Fathers would probably frown on). It’s like reading a CSI episode. I can actually see it as a pilot – replace the journalist with the special contact who needs no screentime and the narrative can fit nicely in an hour. Plotwise, one can solve the case as early as 1/4th of the story, as Saenz’s preoccupation with his tooth is a very prominent foreshadowing.

Nevertheless, the story was tight and the characters were engaging. Some people may see Saenz as a caricature, but he works for me, mostly because he reminds me of my old high school Director. Mestizo, from a moneyed family, speaks Italian and French, and with an interest in biology. Granted, botany is a far cry from pathology, but they share enough characteristics to make me believe that Gus Saenz may be a person who exists. Moreover, Saenz is a genius who is charming, smiles often, with a lovely family, and not an asshole – something we don’t normally see in our favorite eccentrics.

(I’m going off on a tangent here, but I’d like to point out the fact that this story’s main character is a mestizo, and where have we seen this again? Right, Jose Rizal’s protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra/Simoun, who is also a mestizo. There are times when I wonder if there is still a prevailing mestizo superiority complex in Philippine literature, but I sadly have not read that much to accurately say so.)

Fr. Jerome Lucero, on the other hand, hints on a darker past. While Saenz is calm and easygoing, Lucero is impatient, easily angered and actually gets into a fistfight. I do have some nitpicks on Lucero’s behavior as a clinical psychologist. One, the way he spoke to Emong Ricafrente, a victim of child abuse. I mean, I understand that they were pressed for time and that the killer may strike again, but did he really have to get close and whisper ‘did he touch you in bad places’ to somebody who was probably traumatized and may still be? Lucero definitely deserved the beating up, ok, that was foul and insensitive. I think sometimes, his temper gets the better of him. I wouldn’t want him as my shrink. Two, I think it would have made more sense if Lucero negotiated with the killer instead of Saenz because he’s the trained psychologist? Saenz was looking for trouble. Anyway, it might have been for the best, as Lucero was too temperamental. (Let’s see him whisper ‘did he touch you in bad places’ and get a knife stuck between his ribs tsk tsk.)

The best thing about how these holy men are written is that they are not-so-holy. They are men, and like all men, feel anger, sadness and boredom. Saenz, with his mestizo good looks, is extremely attractive to women, as he and others note. He himself is not immune to them and works hard on his self-control. I’m not sure if I want a Spanish prayle arc with these guys, because for once, I’d like a priest story without that kind of torture/drama. Lucero, as is previously noted, has problems with his temper and his ethics and an implied dark past. I also like their interactions, the way they finish each others’ sentences and sandwiches, and the easy companionship of a respected friend and colleague.

I enjoyed the book very much, and it begs a sequel. But it was written a decade or so ago, and there doesn’t seem to be any plan for one. FH Batacan is one of the contributors in the crime anthology Manila Noir, and I’m guessing (and hoping) she’ll bring back the two priests for another crime-solving mystery.

- First part (finding the body) reminds me of the opening parts of The Alienist, Caleb Carr; even the mutilations on the boys. The killers are also had quite similar backgrounds.

- Gus Saenz likes classic rock, a guy after my own heart. Also, he named his ceramic human torso with removable organs Telesforo.

- What’s different every 1st Saturday of the month? Come on! (Wait, I think there’s also a calendar thing in The Alienist, I can’t remember clearly, that was a long while ago) (It is also a bit Holiday from Batman The Long Halloween)

- The random French/Italian Joanna the journalist spouts is distracting.

- Also, the death penalty hasn’t been repealed yet!

- Oh, reversal, a straight-cut, competent politician!

- It’s never explicitly stated, but Jesuits + university = Ateneo.

- Interesting to note that the criminal had a dentistry degree from UP Manila.

- A bit morbid, but, the flaying of the skin reminds me of the time I skinned cats in Anatomy class… Only those were preserved cats ok… and we used to hold races on who’d skin fastest… uhh.

- Speaking of caricature, nobody can be more cartoony than Benjamin Arcinas, attorney in charge of the serial killer case. He is the personification of every flamboyant, powdered, ambitious pain-in-the-main-character’s-ass government official.

- Page 83: Saenz notes that: “Almost all existing fingerprint records in the country, criminal or non-criminal, are in manual storage-and-retrieval systems.” I won’t pretend to know more than I do regarding police procedures, but nowadays, if one ever applies for an NBI clearance at the Main Office in Taft, his/her fingerprints would be in the database since they have those electronic fingerprint machines (which I hope really works). Probably not in other rural areas, but since it’s set in QC, the odds are high that he’s been processed. Then again this is around 1999, so.

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