Book Review: Sheep Investigate Humanity and a Murder in Three Bags Full

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9780767927055Set in rural Ireland in the 1990s, I never would have suspected this to be a German work. Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with German crime novels or rural Ireland in the 1990s, but I had always suspected this to be an Irish import because there are a few puns here that I assume work better in English than in German—Miss Maple a nod to Miss Marple but named for the syrup that she steals from George’s pancakes; Ramses the Ram—but also because of the intimate portrayal of the setting.

This is a book I read and enjoyed ages back now—probably in 2007, almost a decade ago (isn’t that terrifying). It’s traveled with me since, but it’s only now that I returned to it, caught between books and not wanting to get sucked into anything too gripping and confined only to what I could reach without displacing my cat.

And I enjoyed it at least as much. It was almost good that that long time had passed because I’d forgotten important details like the identity of the murderer—though I was surprised what details I found myself however vaguely remembering.

Told mainly from the perspective of a flock of sheep whose reclusive shepherd is found dead in their pasture on page 1, this novel winds its way through the sordid histories of a small and insular town—romantic rivalries, past and present sins, rumors of drug runners among them—as well as the sheep’s own histories and prejudices and superstitions. The sheep in their sheepiness only comprehend so much of the human stories. Their misunderstanding, partial understanding, and incomprehension give the human reader time to reflect on the actions and beliefs of the human characters and all human characters by extension, to see them with an outsider’s eye as sometimes confusing or incomprehensible, while laughing at ourselves and at the sheep.

The depth of Swann’s immersion into sheepy thinking and culture was perhaps one of the more impressive aspects for me of the story.

The story rollicks between quaint and racy all while alluding to famous works of literature from Agatha Christie to Shakespeare to Emily Brontë.

For example, “A play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!” the sheep cry—or no, they don’t, but like Hamlet they concoct a play in the hopes that their dramatics might bring about a confession or an arrest—“justice” they actually do bleat repeatedly throughout the novel. Miss Maple, the cleverest sheep in all of Glennkill, concocts a play wherein Zora as George dies spectacularly, Maple plays the killer, and Mopple the Whale brings forth the clues to the killer’s identity that the sheep hope that the humans might understand.

I was amused this time around to discover that the sheep in the corner is not only a flip book illustration set but a barometer of the level of danger the sheep feel at any given point in the text.

I’m not sure how well I can judge this book as a crime novel or a mystery; I read so few books in that genre, but as a work of fiction, I do really enjoy it. It’s so wonderfully different, and it kept me guessing, and it kept me thinking both about the plot and about humanity and reality.

****

Swann, Leonie. Three Bags Full. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Doubleday/Flying Dolphin-Doubleday, 2006. First published 2005 by Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag-Random.

This review is not endorsed by Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell, Doubleday, Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, or Random House.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

It seems that Penguin Random is now the US publisher.

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