SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F.H. Batacan

 23602702

Smaller and Smaller Circles
By F.H. Batacan
Soho Press – August 2015
ISBN 9781616953980 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First Reads


 Set in the slums of Payatas, just outside Quezon City of the Manila metro area, Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand it is rather unique: a crime procedural novel written by a Filipino author with a plot steeped in local politics and culture, and featuring two Jesuit priests committed to identifying a serial killer preying on the indigent tween boys living amid the neighborhood trash warrens. However on the other hand the novel is exceptionally ordinary: routine in its text and familiar in its protagonists, antagonist, and suspense despite the unique setting and perspective.
 As a respected forensic anthropologist, Father Gus Saenz serves as an asset for the National Bureau of Investigations, particularly surrounded by the corruption of local police and his personal connection as priest to a flock living in abject squalor. Together with his psychologist protégé, Father Jerome Lucero, Father Saenz begins to investigate the appearance of eviscerated young local boys, seeking an end to the horrible crimes of an apparent serial killer and justice for the victims, vulnerable members of humanity that their society would rather ignore.
 Most significantly, I found descriptions of local atmosphere lacking in Batacan’s writing. Though descriptive passages are present, the large chunk of Smaller and Smaller Circles consists of dialogue and stage direction. This is typical in crime novels, but unlike something like Hammett, Batacan’s dialogue and focus on the mundane seems remarkably tedious. To be fair, other readers may see this type of realism to be refreshing, and it may draw them into the story more than it did in my case. Given the expectations I had in viewing this book as a rare Filipino literary take on the crime genre, I was left wanting much more.
 More about the procedure of investigation, the novel can’t really be described as a mystery, as the identity of the killer is not something the reader could arrive at. Yet, there is the element of discovering the killer’s motivations behind the gruesome murders. Again, as with the sociopolitical commentary provided by the setting, the psychology and past of the killer is an aspect to Smaller and Smaller Circles that holds so much untapped potential. Just as Batacan doesn’t pursue the politics of her novel to much depth, so too is the serial killer’s psyche not fully explored. Moreover the ‘reasons’ for the killer’s impulse never believably syncs (in my mind) with the details of the murderous acts.

Identification of the serial killer and the ultimate conclusion to capture them proceed with little twist or surprise, and the reader will likely realize how the killer gains access to victims before the Jesuit pair. This slow predictable plod to resolution, coupled with the unremarkable dialogue, made this hard to get into. Certainly not badly written, fans of police procedurals may still find something to enjoy in this novel, particularly if they appreciate the genre familiarity within a slightly unfamiliar setting. Plenty of readers have connected with Smaller and Smaller Circles, and depending on your interests/expectations you might too. But my expectations for something really new and different were unfulfilled.

In an odd convergence this is actually one of two crime novels I’ve just read featuring Jesuits and an ‘exotic’ locale (compared to those in typical crime novels published in the US). The other succeeds far stronger, so look for its review coming soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for an honest review.

THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE, by Timothy Williams

20691206The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe
(Anne Marie Laveaud Mysteries #2)
By Timothy Williams
Soho Crime – 13th January 2015
ISBN 9781616953850 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 This mystery novel, more accurately perhaps a police procedural novel with a strong sense of setting is filled with fascinating parts, but unfortunately the sum of these together doesn’t add up to much, none of them are explored to their potential.
Set in the former colony, and now département of France, Guadeloupe, this is the second book featuring character Anne Marie Laveaud, an investigating juge of French-Algerian descent. I haven’t read the first book featuring Laveaud, which I am sure covers some of the family and professional details that form a part of this book. That previous book seems unnecessary for following the plot here, or appreciating Laveaud. However reading that prior book may make some of the side plots in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe a little more complete.
In this novel, Laveaud is investigating a pair of deaths in 1990. One is a supposed suicide of a prominent businessman, a case with apparent political ties that leads Laveaud’s superiors to try and push her away from looking into it. Instead they want her to look into the other death, the murder of a young woman, a presumed white tourist, due to its potential ramifications on the tourist industry of the small islands of Guadeloupe.
The title of the novel comes from a common local saying regarding the relationship between Guadeloupe and Martinique, Guadeloupe being more rustic and ‘working class’ in a way (honest folk), compared to the fancier, more well-to-do ‘gentlemen’ of Martinique. Class differences come into play with each of the deaths that Laveaud investigates. And with the second, the murder of the young woman, issues of race and colonialism also rear their heads. As a woman born with connections to the French colony of Algeria, Laveaud is familiar with these issues, but doesn’t allow them to interfere with her simple, constant search for the truth.
Williams writing here is question-laden, as so much of the story is related, and moves forward through the simple barrage of queries to potential witnesses and sources by Laveaud. For fans of procedural detail over action or keen danger this could be welcome, but for readers who go for other types of mystery genre tales, they may find the conversation and subtleties to be dull. Most of the novel passes from conversation to conversation with brief moments of descriptive passages either highlighting local flavors of the islands, or biographical details on Laveaud.
For me the largest difficulty lies in the fact that none of the elements at play here felt fully explored, or properly linked together. I was attracted to this largely due to my interest in things French, and of French colonialism (and just generally enjoying mysteries). But the racial and colonial issues at heart here are background decor, there is not much serious reflection or exploration of the issues. When one brief incident involving a standoff and attack by a dangerous man is used to provide tension and further sociopolitical relevance, it ends up being an aside, not linked integrally with the plot.
Another element present in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe is the family life of Laveaud, who is dealing with separation from her husband and caring for the children as a single parent, when one of them is becoming increasingly rebellious. This personal part of the plot (as well as interesting personality conflicts/rapports with colleagues) never reach any sort of conclusion, and I can only guess that they form a continuous background plot that would develop throughout multiple books of the series. Within the confines of this novel though they are unresolved and seem completely irrelevant, again an issue running parallel to the story, but not a key part of it.
Fans of police procedurals in general and those with an interest in this particular setting would find the most interest in this novel, and even then I’d only recommend delving in if open to following the entire series.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Soho Press via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Publisher: Soho Press
AISN: B00E2RWQJU
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Foreign Gods, Inc. is one of those novels that can be deceptively simple. A well-educated Nigerian man, Ike (Eee-kay), struggling to make ends meet personally and professionally in the US returns to his home village in Nigeria, resigned to steal the local deity, a pathetic plan born of despair to sell the statue to a unique antiquities shop in NYC that offers statues (embodiments) of exotic gods to wealthy collectors. The novel is split between four segments: in NYC, in Nigeria, and back in NYC. Prior to the Nigerian setting that takes up the bulk is a historical ‘retelling’ of the village’s introduction to the missionary who ‘Christianizes’ them and his ‘battles’ against the Nigerian deity, a conflict that still continues in the present day village that Ike returns to.

One theme of the novel is clearly despair and the actions that it drives people to take as they cling on to hopes and beliefs. This imparts a particular darkness to the book overall, it is not by any means a ‘happy story’. Yet, Ndibe manages to keep that tone of despair to a gentle pervading undercurrent up to the novel’s conclusion. With the heaviness of the plot, Ndibe infuses Ike with a humor of absurdity, so that even in the lowest of situations or scenes there remains a bit of the comic, creating a despair that you almost laugh at in realization of the futility in fighting back. Writing in third person, but from the limited POV of Ike, Ndibe also makes the writing lighter and unencumbered, staying true to Ike’s personality: perfect, precise grammar and vocabulary, but blithe and foolishly optimistic.

Beyond the straight-forward plot, Foreign Gods, Inc. says a lot about the cultural history and relations of the West and Africa, from the modern-day exploitation by the shop, to the manipulative brand of ‘Christianity’ exploiting the villagers. Yet, it is not merely critical of the West, but also characteristics of the Nigerian, past and present, such as government corruption… more exploitation.

And I guess that is another major theme here, exploitation of those that are filled with despair. At first I found the historical segue into the Christian missionary who began the ill-conversion of the village to be oddly out-of-place in the scheme of the novel as a whole. It parallels the present-day Nigerian conflicts Ike finds himself embroiled within, but it also highlights how similar Ike ends up being to that Missionary, fueled by an almost insanely naive hope and optimism at the ultimate ‘rightness’ of their actions, certainty if they can just manage to accomplish one small goal that all of their problems will be solved, that a people’s spirits will be saved, or Ike’s existence will. In the end each of them act in such pathetic despair that they lose a certain humanity, becoming an embarrassment, a shell of what they were.

I appreciated the depth that this novel achieves while keeping a strong, simple plot and superior writing.

Five Stars out of Five