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Thriller set in Manila (‘there are no serial killers in the Philippines…’)

11th December 2015

Smaller And Smaller Circles by F H Batacan, thriller set in Manila.

Published in English in September 2015 – 13 years after its first truncated appearance in the Philippines – Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan is, to use an overworked phrase, a ‘noir’ thriller with an original Filipino twist. It is also a book with a social conscience – and works well at both levels. It is said to be the first Filipino crime novel.


Two Jesuit priests, Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero (who also just happen to be a forensic anthropologist and a psychologist respectively) are called in to help the National Bureau of Investigation in Manila identify and then track down the killer of a young boy found in Patayas, a massive rubbish dump where people – especially young boys – scavenge for their existence. The Director of the NBI (an old friend of Gus Saenz) summons them because his own people do not rate the death of such a person as of any real importance… the social conscience element of the book. The two priests soon find other cases – and it is obvious that a serial killer is at work (despite the quote from a senior police officer – ‘You’ve been watching too many foreign movies, Father Saenz, there are no serial killers in the Philippines‘). The dialogue between the two priests is sharp and well written – and a slight ‘relief’ from the somewhat gruesome subject matter.

The social conscience theme also comes through in the background to the story. There are political intrigues and corruption, and the Catholic Church in the Philippines is in the thick of it – with, for example, the moving of a paedophile priest from parish to parish, rather than being prosecuted and dealt with appropriately. This is something that greatly offends Gus Saenz (and, one suspects, the author as well). Batacan – Maria Felicia H Batacan – worked for Filipino intelligence and then as a broadcast journalist, so has a great deal of experience to draw on.

But, social conscience apart, Smaller And Smaller Circles is a great mystery that moves to a thrilling conclusion. It is, in TripFiction terms, very evocative of some of the parts of Manila that a tourist (or passing business person) might not necessarily wish to visit. It describes the underbelly of the city in a very real (and depressing) way.

A book I would recommend. ‘Noir’ remains fashionable, but ‘noir’ set in the Philippines is very different.

Tony for the TripFiction team

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