Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Philippine Crime Fiction, SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES, F. H. Batacan

A story within a story -- a no-holds-barred dark police procedural with brutal crimes and a very twisted criminal, and at the same time a remarkable publishing success created by two astounding women. Yes, that's the new crime novel SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES from F. H. Batacan, whose work in a Philippine intelligence agency fueled the passions that feed this compelling work of suspense and salvation.

In an author interview provided by publisher Soho Crime, Batacan confirms grimly that injustice hasn't changed in more than a decade in her homeland. "The poor and disadvantaged have little hope of justice or redress of grievance, the politicians and lawmakers are still happily raiding the public coffers, and crimes go unsolved and unpunished by the thousands."

But seeing that situation through the eyes of a forensic researcher and a psychologist who happen to be Jesuit priests, Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, cuts more deeply than the plain statistics. Soon after SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES opens, both men face the frustration of knowing another Philippine priest, at a higher level, still has access to children, even though he's a known molester and abuser. At the same time, they're caught up in investigating the gruesomely murdered bodies of children at the edge of society, from families so poor than the children's dump scavenging has to provide food and scant income.

The friendship between Saenz and Jerome is deep and complex -- the older man, Father Gus Saenz, was mentor to the younger, but Father Jerome is no longer a schoolboy, and his insights into criminal behavior the the adult consequences of child abuse are invaluable to Saenz. Still, neither of them realized how desperate the poverty around them could be, until they heard from one dead child's father, telling them how bad life's been, with one parent ill (lung condition) and the other an ex-convict:
"We depended on [the child's] earnings to get by. Often, he would bring food from the dump."

Saenz's eyes widened. "From the dump?"

"If he couldn't find metal or wood or paper to sell, he would look for food -- anything thrown away that could still be used. If it was too spoiled or rotten, he would mix it together for pig slop and sell it. If there were scraps that could still be eaten, he would bring them home. Vegetables, fruit. Moldy bread. Animal fat, animal skin. Bones to make soup." ...

Saenz isn't naive; he's always known that this is the sort of existence that the country's poorest live from day to day. But to hear about it firsthand, told with such apathy and resignation, is a different thing altogether.
But is someone harvesting organs from the fragile children of the mountains of trash? Or re-enacting a horrible abuse on the small bodies?

The warm and direct friendship of the two Jesuit priests, the snippets of revelation from the criminal, and the self-justifications of the empowered all weave together into an intriguing and well-paced book that I couldn't put down. The title is from the perpetrator's perception of the investigators: "I can feel them. Scurrying in circles around me, smaller and smaller circles like rats around a crust of bread or a piece of cheese. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the right moment. The moment when I slip up, when I make a mistake, when I get careless. ... The priest knows. He's coming for me."

In fact, the writing is so smooth, the story so well plotted and well knit, that it's hard to believe the tale of this book's discovery: After Batacan won a prestigious prize in the Philippines for a much shorter manuscript, a mere 40,000 words long (about 150 pages), Soho editor Juliet Grames overlooked it once, then happened to read it, at the same time when the author was read to expand it. "I realized the novel was rich with atmosphere and heroism, and simultaneously darkly noir and glimmering with faith in the better aspects of human nature," Grames reported.

Batacan's decision to expand the story to the full length of a Soho Crime novel succeeded so well that the book might have come this way from the start: well rounded, and uplifting, in spite of the grim brutality it portrays.

It's good to know that Batacan plans to give us more of these two investigating Jesuits. Their triumphs may not gain full justice in a land where so much is politically impossible -- but they have each other's back, and they know what they're called to do, and who is calling them to action.

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