Well that is kind of how crime solving works, right? You draw smaller and smaller circles around a perp, until you catch him/her. So you could say that F.H. Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, 2015) wins the prize for most obvious title of a mystery ever.
That would be doing this unsurprising yet ultimately compelling novel a disservice. For while the tracking-down of the heinous killer of young boys is fairly predictable, and Our Heroes exhibit the usual mix of genius, humility and a dash of hot-headedness, Batacan writes with warmth about her home country of the Philippines and passion about its flaws. For the resolution of this crime, and indeed the crime itself, are dependent upon authority figures recognizing and fighting back against deeply entrenched and supremely powerful corruption in the Church and the government. This venality, in Batacan's Philippines, is the biggest crime of all.
The investigators here are a couple of Jesuit priests who happen to teach anthropology and psychology at a University in Manila, Fathers Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero. They are drawn in to the investigation by the apparently one respectable member of the National Bureau of Investigation, who recognizes a need for fresh minds not tainted by a desire for fame, fortune, or just plain laziness. At the same time as Saenz and Lucero work - or don't - with the NBI, Saenz has been pursuing a highly visible priest whom he believes has been molesting boys, much to the dismay of the Church powers (the pursuit is to their dismay, not the molestation). The story moves along somewhat predictably; Batacan uses the device of giving you a glimpse into the mind of the killer, and I couldn't tell if it was intentional that we were supposed to figure out how he found his victims before Our Heroes did, or not.
But I am glad I read this - thank you Soho Crime club - because it was a view into a different world. In Batacan's universe, the bad priests are just the top of a heap of dishonest officials, poorly trained or lazy or perhaps just overwhelmed civil servants, all on a massive base of deeply entrenched poverty - the only way out of which seems be through the Church or the civil service, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse and corruption. There are pretty searing descriptions of lives lived at the very edge of the abyss, which you have no reason not to believe, and every reason, once you've read about kids whose lives depend on the trash they find at the dump, to be reminded about being grateful.
It is worth reading Batacan's Acknowledgements at the end, because they are a tribute to a great editor. She writes:
"The first time I wrote this book - in 1996, when I was in my mid-twenties - I was angry: angry about my job, about the state of my country, about the callousness, complacency, and corruption that had dragged it there.
The second time I wrote this book - in 2013, in my forties, having moved back home with my infant son - I found myself even angrier: about the state of my country, which seemed even worse than it was in 1996, and about the callousness, complacency, and corruption that kept it there."
Smaller and Smaller Circles could be a screed, and it is not. It is a good read, and it will be one of those that sticks in your mind after you are done.