Jesuit ‘Til You Read This Whodunit

Children from one of the most destitute communities in Manila are abducted and brutally murdered, their bodies and faces mutilated.

Two Jesuits, Gus Saenz, a forensic anthropologist, and Jerome Lucero, a psychologist, are asked to help in the investigation.

It’s a challenging assignment. The two priests must wrestle with a law enforcement culture mostly indifferent to crime victims in poor communities.

And they must overcome the flawed belief of law enforcement higher-ups that serial killings are an American or western phenomenon, that they simply don’t happen in the Philippines.

“You’ve been watching too many foreign movies, Father Saenz,” the Jesuit is told. “There are no serial killings in the Philippines.”

F.H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a gripping whodunit set in Payatas, the garbage dump that’s become the symbol of extreme, dehumanizing poverty in the Philippines.

It’s not just another murder mystery. This compelling debut novel delves into the investigation of extremely violent crimes in a society battered by all forms of violence, especially against the poor.

In neighborhoods on and around the world-famous dumpsite, police don’t even bother to keep detailed records or statistics.

The novel centers on a series of gruesome killings, opening with a ghastly discovery.

“The front of the child’s body seems to be moving, and it takes the priest a few seconds to comprehend that there are maggots in it, thousands of them. … Emil realizes the heart has been removed, the child eviscerated. The genitals are missing. … He looks at the face. Please, God, let the face remind me this used to be a human being. Another few seconds and he realizes the face is gone, as though it has been scraped off, leaving a mess of jellied eyeball and bone protruding here and there through muscle.”

Are these just random killings in a world where murders and violent assaults are common, even routine?

Or is there a murderous beast out there preying on vulnerable children whose deaths would draw little attention, and who are just as likely to die from hunger, disease or random acts of violence as Saenz and Lucero are reminded in one autopsy?

“The front teeth of three of the five other victims they’d seen had minute pits, invisible to the naked eye. This showed that they had breathed often through their mouths -- a sign of chronic respiratory disease. Their families could rarely afford meat or fish, and so the children were raised no diets short on protein, long on carbohydrates and other soft, mushy, insubstantial food.”

Saenz and Lucero set out to find a pattern in the ghastly crimes, Saenz and Lucero must work with an inefficient, poorly funded law enforcement bureaucracy, and with a skeptical and ambitious mid-manager skeptical of their crime-solving abilities.

And then there’s another form of violence against children within their own church. Saenz is investigating the murders as he battles the church hierarchy over the lenient treatment of another priest accused of sexually abusing children.

Author F.H. Batacan (Photo by Owee Slava-Yulo)

Author F.H. Batacan (Photo by Owee Slava-Yulo)

“Smaller and Smaller Circles” won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize in 1999 and the Philippine National Book Award in 2003.

The story of how the novel is now reaching a wider audience is noteworthy. The University of the Philippines Press published the novel with a limited run in 2002.

Ten years later, an associate publisher of Soho Press who was in the Philippines for the Manila International Literary Festival, picked up a copy of the novel at National Book Store.

“The novel was rich with setting atmosphere and heroism, and simultaneously darkly noir and glimmering with faith in the better aspects of human nature,” the publisher, Juliet Grames, writes.

“Smaller and Smaller Circles” was published in New York in August 2015.

Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel

Visit and like Benjamin Pimentel’s Facebook page On Twitter @boyingpimentel.

More articles from Benjamin Pimentel