Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book review: Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Transworld Publishers/The Random House Group Ltd. 2006. 352 pages.

As flock animals who can be herded to their own deaths (see Thomas Hardy), sheep are easy to look down on—that is, until you meet the individuals who make up the flock in Leonie Swann's Three Bags Full. From the clever Miss Maple (a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie's demure spinster detective) to the enigmatic black Hebridean ram, Othello, with a mysterious past, Swann's crowd is full of unforgettable characters.

This fable begins with the murder of their shepherd, George Glenn, whom they find run through with a shovel. Although the flock can't quite forgive him his habit of wearing Norwegian wool sweaters, they agree that he was a good shepherd and that they would like to know who did him in and why. Miss Maple, reputed to be the cleverest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), takes the lead in trying to nail the killer.

This is no easy feat for a flock whose contact with the outside world is restricted, whose primary human frame of reference is an outcast from his own herd, and whose humorous interpretations of abstractions don't lead them as far astray as might be expected—for example, their belief that the term "God" and all that humans associate with God refers to the village vicar.

As the story of George's complicated life unfolds, so do the inner lives of the sheep and the inner workings of the flock. Miss Maple is almost single minded in her pursuit of justice, which the sheep believe is something that can be found in George's caravan and that needs to be outed. She also asks pointed questions such as, "What does George have to do with drugs? What are drugs anyway?" Othello is haunted by his lonely, violent past and a voice that seems to taunt him with aphorisms like, "Sometimes being alone is an advantage." Zora daydreams of the depths and heights, of the abyss and the cloud sheep that sometimes fill the sky. Mopple the Whale, the fat "memory" sheep who forgets nothing and understands little, makes a lasting impression as "a plump young ram staring in bewilderment out of the car window and eating George's road map."

The humans, too, are vividly drawn, from the frightened "God" to the fearsome butcher, Ham. None, however, is more clearly portrayed and more enigmatic than the late George Glenn, the "Goblin-King" who read romance ("Pamela") novels to his herd and received mysterious visitors in quiet black cars. George, "who usually said things in a way that a sheep could understand," proves to be beyond the ken of sheep and humans alike.

Three Bags Full has the elements of a classic detective story—a gruesome death scene, an enigmatic victim, a village populated by likely suspects with secrets, a plot complete with red herrings, and a clever detective whose human understanding falls short. So does the ending, which introduces another ovine character who appears to be more clever than Miss Maple because he lives among the human herd that George left behind. Perhaps there's a lesson here about people, cleverness and intelligence, and herd mentality and individual reason. It's lost in the convolutions of the plot, the side tracking, and the contrived resolution. By the last page, with Othello contemplating mating season, the individuals who had captured my heart with their ruminations accompanied by mindless rumination seem to have been reduced to just another flock, doing what typical sheep typically do. In this case, the destination doesn't satisfy nearly as much as the journey.

Saturday, 27 December 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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