Fathers Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero

(creator: F H Batacan)


F H Batacan
Father Augusto (Gus) Saenz wears glasses and is a little over 6 feet tall and "has the wiry muscularity that comes with zero body fat. He has angular mestizo (mixed race) features, thick, wavy hair greying at the temples." He had earned his doctorate in physical and medical anthropology at a French university and been a Jesuit priest for three decades, and is now a respected forensic anthropologist, one of the few in the Philippines. He teaches in the Sociology and Anthropology Department of the local university.
His work for abuse and disaster victims is well known and has earned him something of a reputation as a troublemaker with the church authorities. He rarely has to raise his voice. He is very much the senior partner of the two detectives and is the leading character In the novel.

Father Jerome Lucero is about 5' 9" tall and "of a physical type that is usually described as 'compact' or 'solid'. Beefy arms, broad shoulders, tapering down into a slim waist and hips. Wavy hair tamed in a severe crewcut; wide, dark eyes. He has an intensity, seriousness about him that makes him seem older than his thirty seven years."

He had become Father Saenz's young protégé and friend. They had first met when Jerome had been a high school freshman aged 13. He had been an unhappy child who had come from a troubled family and walked with a limp. Father Saenz had gone out of his way to help and encourage him. They met again when Saenz was pleased to find that Jerome was a young Jesuit novice in his theology class at University, and their friendship deepened significantly in the years that followed: "Although two men could hardly be more different in character and temperament, they find themselves on either end of a baffling mutual affinity. It is so strong that sometimes they startle themselves by finishing each other's sentences and thinking similar thoughts almost simultaneously. In the last two decades, they have become each other's consciences and sounding boards."

Jerome became a clinical psychologist who also taught in the university. He is "blunt to the point of occasional abrasiveness, he has few friends, although those he does have - brothers in the order, colleagues and students from the University - will go the last mile for him. Jerome is restless, dogged and questioning - the type, Saenz says, 'who does not suffer fools gladly.' A contradiction of a man; on one hand an intense, volatile temperament, on the other a surprisingly gentle, compassionate nature."

F H Batacan (Maria Felisa H. Batacan) is a Filipino journalist based in Singapore, who became a writer of crime and mystery fiction. She was born in Manila and graduated from the University of the Philippines with a BA in communications and an MA in art history. She worked in the Philippine intelligence community for nearly a decade and then became a broadcast journalist. In 1999 her manuscript of Smaller and Smaller Circles was awarded the Don Carlos Palanca Grand Prize. It was first published in 2002 and is widely regarded as the first Filipino crime novel. She was subsequentlty encouraged by Soho Press to rewrite it so she more than doubled its length, and it is this version that is reviewed below. She says that she writes because of her interest in the complicity of law enforcement and her determination to overcome the reluctance of the media, politicians, and ordinary citizens to demand better of their public service servants.

Smaller and Smaller Circles (2002)
Smaller and Smaller Circles is set in Manila In 1997. It follows two Catholic priests on the hunt for a serial killer in the notorious dump city of Payatas
that is home to thousands of people who live off of what they can scavenge there. It is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in a city whose law enforcement is already stretched thin, devoid of forensic resources and rife with corruption.

It gets off to a horrific start when the eviscerated body of a 13-year-old boy (with his face and genitals removed) is found in a dump heap. It soon emerges that he was only one of six young victims - all small young boys who worked on the dumps. Father Saenz's autopsy reveals that there were no signs of any sexual attack. But then conscientious but old and ill Francisco Lastimosa, director of the National Bureau of Investigation, whose grasping subordinates (busily in-fighting for positions of power) are eager to be rid of him, tells Father Saenz, "Whoever did this is talking to us. And I believe you can help us understand what he is trying to say," and so forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz, helped by his friend, psychologist Father Jerome Lucero, dedicates himself to tracking down the person preying on these impoverished boys.

It's a complex story with real-life characters and convincing situations. The murderer's motives are gradually revealed as we are given brief but frequent insights into his thoughts. Oddly enough, even he eventually emerges as a character not totally undeserving of some sympathy. Father Saenz's busy life is realistically portrayed and he is also seen urging his cardinal to deal with a child-abusing priest: at first he meets with no success and is just seen as a troublemaker, but he is one who is passionately concerned to make right prevail and to protect the innocent.

The appalling poverty stricken background really comes to life. Saenz is told by the mother of one of the murdered boys how he had no choice but to work on the dump where "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. Pig fat, animal skin. Bones to make soup .... It's still food, you know. We just put it all in a pot and boiled it so that we wouldn't get sick. Most of the time, that's all the food we had."

It makes a dramatic and engrossing story that never fails to hold the interest. Even such apparently self-seeking characters as attorney Ben Arcinas are treated in a way that reveals how they became what they are and suggests that a new start is always possible. It all builds up to a dramatic, exciting climax - and is to be recommended.



For the story behind the book see the Soho Press site. There Is also an interesting interview with the author on the Crimetime site.



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Smaller and Smaller Circles cover
The cover does not give much away, but the book is much more gripping than it suggests.
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