Felisa Batacan has written a stunning murder mystery set in the Philippines. Smaller and Smaller Circles has it all — a strong emotional plot involving serial killing, political corruption and child abuse. The protagonists are two academic priests with a specialty in forensics. Their relationship has a history and is warm, humorous and oddly endearing. Together they face enormous hostility from powerful political and religious power brokers who prefer to bury the unpleasant “problem” as quickly as possible. The victims are all poor young boys who would be forgotten, but for these two remarkable forensic priests who are determined to honor the victims by solving their murders. They also need to find the murderer fast, before more deaths occur.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery featuring forensic priests before, but Felisa Batacan is clearly on to something. The combination of the decent, clever priests with brutal murder and the stench of political and religious corruption makes for a truly fascinating story. The interplay of relationships is a strong component — everyone seems to be linked to someone else, for better or worse. This excellent mystery also offers the intriguing possibility of redemption. Some of the bad guys may not stay so bad.
The writing is strong and clear, and this books has deservedly won a number of awards in the Philippines. Apparently Smaller and Smaller Circles is one of the first Philippine murder mysteries, and I hope Ms Batacan makes her excellent debut novel the first in a series.
Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department. Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy. Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China. A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous. The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies. Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative. This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies. I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order. If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.
I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre. This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series. I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable. A Dangerous Place is no exception. Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India. The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally. There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing. In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs. Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her. In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being. She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.
I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases. This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable approach of fascism.
Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening. It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family. Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen. Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him. The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right. The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles. It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting. I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir.