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Culture

Book Review: Clever Sheep Solve a Murder Mystery

Occasionally, DW-WORLD.DE brings you reviews of some of the latest German books being published in English. This time, we look at an international best-seller -- a murder mystery with sheep as detectives.

A good summer read

Three Bags Full

By Leonie Swann

Translated by Anthea Bell

Doubleday Publishers

351 pages

Nearly any reader would admit that a book about a flock of sheep solving a murder mystery would lend itself to jokes about counting those sheep as one turns the pages.

Especially if the story starts off slowly and one is prone to spontaneous bouts of slumber -- those Z's gently purring out of one's mouth as the book gradually tilts forward, the reader nods off and images of fleecy sheep jumping over a fence loom ever larger in the mind's eye.

While reading the first chapters of Leonie Swann's "Three Bags Full" ("Glennkill" in German), this reader had to keep reminding herself that the book had become an international best-seller that had meanwhile been translated into at least 16 different languages.

That fact, and the occasional bemusement at the soliloquies of the detective sheep pondering who had killed their shepherd, spurred me on, but not without resistance.

Puzzling idea

Somehow the compelling nature of their shepherd's murder just did not come across in the initial pages of the book. Still, I read on, intrigued by how the debut novelist would depict the rest of the puzzle surrounding shepherd George Glenn's demise.

After all, the setting was inviting -- a hillside meadow near the Irish village of Glennkill, and the depth of the sheep's outrage at finding George pinned to the ground with a spade did slowly emerge.

Hardcover version

Swann's sheep, armed with their own literary accoutrements, deductive abilities and determination to avenge their shepherd's death, begin tracking down the culprit. With names like "Othello" (the lead, black ram) and "Miss Maple" (a.k.a. "the smartest sheep in all Glennkill"), the animal protagonists already have an indirect link to murder and crime-solving.

Furthermore, they had developed their cognitive abilities by listening to their former shepherd George read aloud to them every afternoon when taking a break from grazing. George's literary tastes ranged from fairy tales to treatises on sheep diseases to trashy novels featuring red-headed heroines named "Pamela." Conveniently enough, George also once read a detective story to the sheep, so they feel adequately prepared to tackle the dirty business of crime-fighting.

Following their noses

As they muse over the quirky behavior of human beings, the animals also apply their sharply honed sense of smell to aid them in solving the puzzle. While Swann's countless descriptions of the sheep scenting the villagers to glean information do perhaps prompt a deeper understanding of just how animals tick, they also compose the sections of the novel that easily could have been whittled down. The flowery depictions of the animals' olfactory aptitude are initially amusing, and ultimately, annoying.

In Swann's book, sheep have a mind of their own

Still, the sheep's sense of smell gives them a straightforward approach that allows them to distinguish between the liars and truth-seekers in Glennkill, among them: George's estranged wife, the butcher, a rival shepherd, a Pentecostal wallflower pining for the murdered man and George's even more estranged daughter who returns to the village. This ability to scent also eventually leads them to successfully, albeit indirectly, reveal George's murderer.

History of animal literary figures

Swann is not the first to employ animals as literary protagonists. Other smart animals carry the flag in well-known books such as George Orwell's "Animal Farm," Paul Auster's "Timbuktu," Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" or the children's tale "Charlotte's Web," to name just a few.

Yet, as Ian Sansom wrote in The Guardian, "with sheep as detectives Swann solves one of the major problems in crime fiction, which is how to avoid the stereotypical jaded, cynical, alcoholic deadbeat gumshoe with relationship problems."

Lending other animals in the book monikers such as "Rameses," "Mopple the Whale" and "Satan" also helps to feed the reader's imagination.

Mixed reviews

Some German literary critics have been harsh in their assessment of "Three Bags Full," with one writer in the weighty weekly Die Zeit wondering how Swann's "simple" language can generate a best-seller.

Author Leonie Swann

Another critic in the influential daily Süddeutsche Zeitung imagined a clever talk between a literary agent and a prospective author that targeted cute sheep in narrative as harbingers of massive book sales.

Denis Scheck, a prominent German literary critic, was kinder, calling the acquaintance with Swann's Glennkill sheep a "real pleasure."

"Three Bags Full" is a bit strange, but, as Sansom wrote, it is also affecting. If you can get over the initial slow pace of the book and a personal unwillingness to accept sheep as anything but dull, you will enjoy an occasional chuckle or smirk as you read on the train and glance up every now and then at your fellow commuters.

Ultimately, Swann's book offers readers perhaps less of a new take on how we perceive animals, and more of one on how they perceive us.

It's a lightly philosophical summer read, with the paperback edition due out at the beginning of July.

DW.DE