Book Reviews
Comments 13

Serial Mysteries – Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a mystery novel that revolves around two Jesuit priests, Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, investigating a series of killings at the Payatas dumpsite, a popular one in the Philippines. Having a background in forensic anthropology, the two priests are tapped by the men of the National Bureau of Investigation to assist them in capturing the killer who cleanly rips off the faces and hearts of preteen boys living at the dumpsite. Soon enough, the matter is put wholly into the priests’ hands. With the aid of the meddlesome yet resourceful reporter Joanna Bonifacio, the priests are able to find out who the serial killer is despite the inefficiency of the government’s main crime investigation body.


It was not without a little trepidation that I started this novel. I want to like it. In fact, I want to fall in love with it because it’s a popular contemporary novel by a fellow Filipino writer. It won a slew of awards and has gone on further to become both a best-selling and literary sensation. However, I am not into mystery-slash-crime novels.

I haven’t read a lot of novels branded as such. The only one that I can think of right now is Diane Hoh’s The Fever, a mystery about a teenage girl whose fever won’t die. That was eons ago. It was stashed in one of the cabinets at my grandma’s house. I don’t know who owns it but that doesn’t matter. I stumbled upon while I was looking for something, so I read it and I did so at a furious pace. Yeah, I enjoyed reading it. I mean, I was always amazed when the clues leading to the planned killing were found out by the main character mostly because I was a gullible and unsuspecting reader with no criminal instinct.

And after reading it, I put it back at the cabinet. It was fun, but it felt like munching on empty calories. Well, what did I expect? It was not supposed to teach me a Big Lesson about Life, right? It was just supposed to thrill and entertain me during those dog days at my grandma’s house. So yeah, after that, I didn’t go after mystery novels.

However, this is supposed to be different because it’s a literary-slash-mystery-slash-crime novel. The first page of my copy even has a quote from Nietzsche. Like whoa, I did not expect that, but I didn’t really bother to link it to the novel. I just read it, and yeah, I did so at a furious pace.

It’s depressing to read the papers or to watch the news. Everyday something bad happens–a bank gets robbed, a war breaks out, a child gets raped–and nobody can do anything about it. Not the police, not the press. Not the mothers and fathers, not the lawyers or the priests.

We are all powerless in the face of evil.

No, no, that’s not true. We are powerless while we wait for other people to act in our behalf.

Yes, that’s it. The truly powerful man is the man who stands alone.

The novel offers the murderer’s point-of-view in the first person, relating to the reader the thoughts that he or she has. The thoughts often juxtapose with the plot driven by the characters’ roundabout way of investigating, complete with the government officials’ bribery and the mass media’s sensationalist manner of reporting. Through these, one could glean that the murderer is just nearby. And maybe just after passing through the middle part of the novel, the identity of this murderer is revealed. So what’s the point? This is supposed to be a mystery novel and yet, why is the Big Mystery revealed at such an early point?

Perhaps that is not the point of the novel. A mystery novel that is so easy on giving away clues (yes, I detected them despite my being a gullible and unsuspecting reader) must have another mystery going on, no? Perhaps one of those mysteries is one of my shallow complaints: why do the main characters have to be Jesuit priests? Why can’t they be just merely forensic anthropologists? I find this part really pretentious (and I’ve been avoiding the use of this word) and really, nothing would have changed anyway whether they were priests or not.

Or perhaps the mystery is the NBI’s lack of resources to hunt down a serial killer. Really, that is not a mystery, but think about it: why two priests instead of a whole armada of policemen and NBI agents? Are there any known serial killings in the Philippines? Have they never experienced cracking down a case as this?

Or perhaps the mystery is how the reporter and the head investigator got to where they are. Why does the former have a lot of power over other people (and why could she speak four languages so fluently)? Why is the latter at such a position if he’s not fit for it?

Or perhaps the mystery is the serial killer’s past, who is both a murderer and a victim. Who is to be blamed for his or her end? The parents? The school? The thing that happened to the murderer when he or she was young? The society at large? The murderer alone?

Or perhaps the mystery is the source of evil in local society. Is it the luxurious lives of the Jesuit priests, or at least one of them? Is it the government’s lassitude and helplessness? Is it the media’s need for big scoops and ratings? Is it the vengeful heart of the murderer? Is it the squalid and dirty place where the victims live? Is it the place? Is it the people? Is it us?

And perhaps I should have given this the credit that it is due. This is a required reading in some local universities. However, just like the first mystery-slash-crime novel that I read, it felt to me like empty calories, although it is not at all empty. It is actually provocative, hence, all the questions posed above. But I am all too familiar with this circular way of crime-solving;  it’s something that I’ve seen vicariously, it’s something that I’ve indirectly experienced. And the whole thing is just not my cup of tea.


Dates Read: May 12 to 13, 2013

No. of Pages: 155

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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13 Comments

  1. Perfect time to write this “review”, yes? When you’re up for some serious lambasting or just need an outlet to do whatever? :)

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  2. Nice review. I particularly liked your comment about the lead investigators being Jesuit priests. Although I didn’t find it unnecessary like you did, I just thought that the protagonists didn’t feel like priests at all and, in being so, I felt that Batacan wasted that promising direction that she could have taken in terms of characterization.

    However, It seems that I enjoyed the book more than you did.:D

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  3. I read this too! However, unlike you, I rather enjoyed it. Perhaps I was amused at the novelty of it all. It’s not every day when we read a Filipino crime novel, no?

    But yes, I would have to agree with you regarding the investigators being Jesuits. It had so much potential character- and narrative-wise.

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  4. I actually read this one too :) I liked it for what it was. Like you, I’m not a big fan of mysteries. I found it an easy read. If I was in HS, I would be more amenable to reading this..than say… a Lualhati Bautista. It felt almost like a YA novel to me. Local mystery YA, i guess? And we still don’t see much of those now, right? (or if meron, point me to it?) So I’m thinking, it must be hard to do, hence the Palanca? What do you think?

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    • Hmm. I wouldn’t want to call it YA because of its “readability.” Besides, it seems demeaning to YA readers. On the other hand, YA and mystery novels spin so fast, and I must say that it’s a talent for a writer to be able to make the reader focus all the attention on the book (and we have to consider that people’s respective attention span is getting shorter).

      I’m not huge on YA but yeah, I haven’t heard of YA novels. It’s either there’s a dearth of them or I’m too oblivious. And why it won the Palanca? Two reasons: 1.) it’s good enough; 2.) it has no competition. Oh, I’m so mean! XD

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