This one is a gem in Philippine fiction (er, there aren’t really a lot of the novel kind in the detective mystery arena that I know of, except for the recent blooming of short stories in fantasy fiction c/o Fully Booked and Neil Gaiman). Felisa Batacan’s vivid imagery will haunt you to sleeplessness. She also successfully incorporates the Pinoy flavor into this exciting story at par with our contemporary Western favorites (dare I say Grisham? Maybe better than).
Jesuit priests Augusto Saenz (a forensic pathologist) and Jerome Lucero (a clinical psychologist) team up ala Holmes and Watson to track down the serial killer who defaces his child victims in Payatas, and the story pulls us deeper into the psyche and the culture of the less-fortunate and the abused. The difficulty of working with the National Bureau of Investigations (NBI) on low-profile crime cases is also given a glimpse in the persona of the pompous Atty. Benjamin Arcinas. Saenz and Lucero’s deductive skills are tested to its limits in the baffling clues and patterns they uncover and receive, and the tension escalates into a heart-pumping climax as they zero in on their killer…
The hero & foil aspects of the tandem is amusing, and the repartee is reminiscent of any iconic dynamic duo. There are two aspects of the novel, however, that makes it pretentious. First, it is peppered with Latin, Italian, and French phrases that are never directly translated, so the reader is left wondering what they all meant (one would have the sense that Jesuits are intelligently unintelligible, haha). Second, the literary epigraphs are too distracting and makes the whole book seem quite unfocused. There are too many perspectives already in play: the omniscient author in the literary epigraphs, the serial killer’s, the individual characters featured. The novel can definitely do without those quotations.
It is still a highly recommended read despite those two flaws. It makes one proud that this Filipino fiction writer can write fiction, and write it damn well.
(Smaller and Smaller Circles won the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award in 2002, and the 1999 Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel in English)