Smaller and Smaller Circles
by F.H. Batacan

There are no serial killers in the Philippines.

In her Palanca-winning first novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, Felisa Batacan plants a seed that disturbs this widely held assumption. She points out that "Philippine police and law enforcement authorities do not compile statistics on missing persons on a nationwide basis...Little attention is paid to determining patterns …serial killing is a far more prevalent phenomenon in the country than the police have the capability or the inclination to detect."

She makes us forget about the serial killers roaming the corn fields of rural America or those stalking the back alleys of Europe because in her novel, the streets the serial murderer walks are now our own. Batacan brings the killer home and makes him haunt the comfortable world of Ateneo, Katipunan Avenue, and the small roads of Quezon City. The Payatas dumpsite, already notorious for the terrible landslide years ago, is now given an even more menacing air as the setting for a series of gruesome murders.

Hot on the trail of the slaughterer are two Jesuit priests who are arguably the most engaging men of the cloth to come out in Filipino literature. Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero are forensic anthropologists. Jerome, the younger half of this new dynamic duo, is rather serious and intense with a volatile temper. Gus, on the other hand, listens to Bach, Gregorian chants, the Doors, and the Sex Pistols when examining corpses.

The novel begins insidiously and the first glimpse you have of this world is through the eyes of the killer.

"I feel like I'm always being watched.

I hate being watched."

There is no reprieve as the immediate succeeding scenes introduce us to the horror the book holds. Batacan does not disappoint us in our expectation of a crime novel. Blood, and lots of it. It is this dread that makes the book a wonderful and welcome addition to the body of Philippine literature in English. For the first time, an author deals with a theme very common in popular Western literature, much loved by many readers, yet largely ignored by Filipino writers.

At first one is dubious about whether this kind of story could work. A doubt that perhaps stems from the firm conviction that there are no serial killers in the Philippines. But as we're taken through the novel, firmly grounded as it is in familiar surroundings, the story not only works, it frightens.

It isn't a dizzying action-packed book though. There are moments in which the author proceeds ponderously through a maze of detail. Laborious as these sections may seem at times, it is precisely these parts that allow us to appreciate the remarkable research the author did to preserve the scientific integrity of her novel.

This does not mean that the author is incapable of kicking up her pace a few notches. Once we wade through the detail, Batacan pushes her priests to draw their initial conclusions and, despite any resistance we may have to immersing ourselves further in the horrific quality of the book, we are plunged right in.

At this point the author hits her stride. The gripping quality of the succeeding hundred or so pages makes the novel difficult to put down. Traditional whodunits have us at the edge of our seat guessing who the criminal may be. Other crime novels reveal the perpetrator and we turn the pages to find out how such an evil criminal will meet his end. But the power of Smaller and Smaller Circles lies in neither of these.

The solution to the mystery becomes incidental to Batacan's story. It isn't even the curiosity of what happens next that makes the novel compelling. It is the mind of the killer that is the driving force of the story.

Throughout much of the novel, the murderer is a specter whose voice haunts us in alternating chapters. One feat accomplished in this novel is that the author filled it with the presence of a character we never see until the end; and by the time we do encounter the murderer, we are so deeply engrossed with the persona we find our sympathies lie there. Towards the end, the killer says: "I. Didn't. Want. It." And it is his salvation we wish for.

The great number of horror films produced through the decades is an indicator that people have a strange fascination for the dark, the terrifying, the macabre. This inherent quality should in itself be enough to make Smaller and Smaller Circles a satisfying read; but in the novel this fascination pushed deeper than glimpses at horrifying images. The book becomes gratifying because our involvement goes much further than watching a terrifying story unfold. We are taken into the mind of a psychopath and we realize, with a little shock of pleasure, that we understand just how it thinks.

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