3.5 stars. I had a shaky start with this mystery book, but after I gave up on the audiobook version, we got along just fine. The story takes place in Payatas, a Filipino neighborhood that is home to a 50-acre landfill where poor people come to scavenge and eek out a living. Many of these people are small children, mostly undernourished boys. When some of these preteen boys begin to turn up dead with horrific mutilations, the National Bureau of Investigations brings in two Jesuit priests (one is a leading forensic anthropologist and the other a respected psychologist) to help out in finding the killer. Tension mounts as the weeks progress and the body count rises.
Batacan does a great job at infusing this gruesome plot with plenty of empathy and humanity. First, the victims are humanized. The reader gets to meet their families and know that they’re more than just a body to further the plot. Second, there are (mostly) no purely good or purely evil characters. It’s funny, in a book centered on two priests, the world is presented as mostly devoid godliness. Instead, the world is what we humans make of it, sometimes kind and often harsh.
I really thought this was a great mystery and the Filipino setting gave it something fresh that many western mysteries are lacking. The characters and the complex political machinations are just as fascinating, if not more so than the actual mystery. And I was pleased to find that in a story dealing with priests and murdered little boys, there was significant acknowledgement and side plot about the Catholic church’s problem of playing hide the pedophile. It would have been too glaring an omission to not acknowledge the connection and the way Batacan weaves that issue into the story is skillful. Just make sure you reach for a digital or hard copy, the audiobook version was kind of confusing, even with a good narrator.