18 September 2007

They Do Get Woolly, Because of All the Stress

The title of Three Bags Full when it was first published in German was Glennkill, after the Irish village in which it takes place. The author has an original name as well since "Leonie Swann" is a pseudonym. Apparently she was working on her doctorate when she wrote this murder mystery, and it may not have helped her academic stature to be known for writing a novel--let alone a genre novel--let alone a genre novel about talking sheep.

I should be clear that these sheep don't talk to humans. Though they understand what humans say to each other, they talk only to themselves. And this book isn't for kids. But there's nevertheless a fantastic dimension to this novel. Let's face it: sheep aren't known for their intelligence.

In fact, it takes more than the whole herd to assemble the brainpower they need to find out how their shepherd George has died. A lively ewe named Miss Maple handles the logical thinking. A fat ram named Mopple manages the memory. The black ram Othello, guided by a maverick loner, discovers his potential as a leader. And other sheep contribute in their ways, even if only as background color.

Anthea Bell's translation is deft enough to include puns ("meet" and "meat," for instance) and literary allusions. Along the way there are enough comical misunderstandings and surprises, for both the characters and us, to make the ambling journey entertaining.

This is not traditional rural Ireland, but rather a contemporary Ireland that's trading on its traditions for tourism, and the picturesque sheep are unknowingly part of that effort. They also turn out to be ****SPOILER #1**** part of a hashish smuggling scheme, though I still don't see the advantage in secretly moving grass from one out-of-town meadow to another. Given the lack of police in Glennkill and the village's penchant for keeping secrets, the smugglers could have hauled their stuff in an open wheelbarrow.

As a mystery, though, Three Bags Full was eventually less than filling. ****SPOILER #2**** Together the sheep find an explanation for George's death and set out to communicate it to the people of Glennkill in a most dramatic fashion. However, their explanation is wrong. Their actions prompt a character to reveal what really happened on the night George died, but that's sheer luck.

Furthermore, ****SPOILER #3**** when the herd have heard that admission, they can't understand it. The human emotions and concerns involved make no sense to them as sheep. (Another ram, whom we've never seen before that scene and who spends a lot more time hanging around in pubs, tries to explain it to them, without success.) Three Bags Full is therefore a mystery novel told from the point of view of investigators who are congenitally unable to solve the mystery. That's unavoidably unsatisfying.

In addition, I thought Three Bags Full, though by no means slim, left a number of loose threads. What happens to the winter lamb? Why does Tess the sheepdog play so little role in the herd's thinking? How will the sheep find the Continent? (Yes, yes: go to London, then turn right.) It was an interesting read, to be sure, but it left me itching for a little more.

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