– Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
What do Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 (Soviet Union), Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal (Nazi Germany), and F. H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines) have in common? They are all superb examples of serial killer narratives where political agendas worm their way into an investigation, and they all feature serial killers allowed by state authorities to run amok. This, to me is an essential quality in any plausible crime novel about serial killers, but I wanted to provide some real world examples.
Child 44 features a based-on-real-life serial killer allowed to get away with innumerable murders because the Soviet authorities believed there could be no such thing as a serial killer in such a revolutionary utopia. The Pale Criminal showcases how scapegoating can lead an investigation off-track, as a detective seeks a serial killer while the Nazis use a series of murders for propaganda purposes.
In Smaller and Smaller Circles, set in the late 90s, two Jesuit priests, stunned by the failure of local police to solve a series of brutal murders of young boys in their community, decide to track down the killers themselves. Unlike Child 44 or The Pale Criminal, however, Smaller and Smaller Circles has been hailed as the first Filipino crime novel, and by extension the first to use the genre for a social critique of inequality in Manila.
Smaller and Smaller Circles is the topic of our next Murder in the Afternoon Book Club discussion, happening this upcoming Monday, September 26th, at 1 PM. F. H. Batacan, a former intelligence worker and now journalist, won the Phillipine National Book Award for the novel, and SoHo Press brought it across the water for us to read here in the states as part of their mission to bring the best international crime fiction to American audiences. I’m grateful to them for doing so.
Smaller and Smaller Circles provides a fascinating glimpse into a complex world containing many cultures, and influenced by many more. The author’s love for the community she writes about, and fury at those who exploit it shine through every page. F. H. Batacan uses serial murder as a jumping off point to discuss the widespread neglect of impoverished communities in Manila and critique the “justice for some” mentality prevalent among authorities there in the late 90s. She also uses the novel to highlight the potential for community advocates to either sub in for overburdened investigators or to use their charitable street cred to take advantage of their community.
She is also skilled at evoking the physicality of the Phillipines. Smells, sounds, foods, colorful characters, and street scenes flesh out the story as Batacan’s priests experience daily life while tracking down the serial killer. She also has a tight handle on the internal politics of the church, and perfectly conveys the charitable community’s face-saving measures when confronted with the bad behaviors of their own members, capturing the back-office corruption of unwieldy organizations allowing the violent and depraved to walk free, rather than cause a scandal.
There are, of course, plenty of works in the subgenre with plausible serial killers in wealthy communities. They generally focus on mismanagement of resources or police incompetence as the excuse for a high body count in a prosperous place, but the most believable of these stories, like the works cited above, have an intelligent killer targeting a vulnerable community lacking proper protection from authorities. Whether that’s teenage runaways in Washington, migrant workers in California, refugees all over the world, domestic workers in NYC, trafficking victims in Scandinavia, or impoverished children in Manila (or anywhere), it’s the job of the crime novel to remind readers that we are comfortable at home because we are protected, and millions are not.
It’s also the job of the crime novel to remind readers that fiction can help speak for those silenced by their stateless or impoverished status, and any story that doesn’t try to provide a venue for those voices, but merely kills them off, is not respecting those stories but exploiting them. Smaller and Smaller Circles is full of love and respect for the people of Manila, righteous fury against any who would choose to exploit those people, and disgust for those who would cover that up rather than deal with the painful truth.
You can find copies of Smaller and Smaller Circles on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss F. H. Batacan’s Jesuit noir Smaller and Smaller Circles this upcoming Monday, September 26th, at 1 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor. Book club picks are 10% off at the registers in the month of their selection.