Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story - Leonie Swann Rating: 3.8 stars, I’m rounding up

Three Bags Full is, without a doubt, the best sheep detective novel ever written. It’s a very fun read that can be enjoyed as a simple diversion from life’s cares or as a serious, if humorous, look at dealing with “guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love” (back cover).

The story begins when George Glenn’s flock discovers his dead body in their meadow one morning. An uncommon shepherd, George had been in the habit of reading to his sheep – primarily trashy romances (“Pamela stories”), a detective novel, and, once, a book of sheep diseases – so they were very familiar with humans and their habits. That familiarity leads the flock to want to find George’s murderer.

There’s a large cast of idiosyncratic characters but the chief ones are Miss Maple (the smartest sheep in Glennkill and probably the world), Othello (the literal “black” sheep of the flock), Mopple the Whale (who can remember everything), Zora (a mystical sheep who’s always looking into the abyss), and Sir Ritchfield (the lead ram) and his twin Melmoth (who left the flock but came back). One of this book’s greatest strengths is how successful Swann is in keeping to the ovine point of view and logic. Assuming that you’re willing to believe that sheep can think on a conscious level, at no point do you not believe in the plausibility of the sheep’s investigation. She also sets up some hilarious scenes of human-sheep interaction and examples of sheepish logic. For example, at one point Miss Maple, Othello and Mopple sneak into the village to spy on a conversation between two of the prime suspects. They’re lurking outside one of the women’s house but can’t see inside because of a geranium bush. Mopple devours the foliage and then Swann describes one of the funnier images in the book: “A short time later there was devastation where the geraniums had recently been growing and thriving. Beyond the devastation the sheep could see Beth and Rebecca sitting at the table. From inside the room, it looked as if Beth had planted three sheep’s heads in her window box….” (p. 133)

In another example, Sir Ritchfield’s twin Melmoth returns but the sheep don’t realize who he is. Believing him to be Sir Ritchfield, his odd behavior and words make the flock afraid that a hole has opened up in Sir Ritchfield’s memory and it’s all leaking out so they determine to create a memory so big that the hole will be stuffed: “Soon afterward all the sheep in the flock were lying on their backs in front of George’s Place with their legs in the air, bleating for all they were worth.”

It’s also funny to watch how the guilty consciences of the village butcher, Ham, and parish pries, Father William, turn Mopple and Othello into demon sheep sent to torment them; or the climactic final scene where Miss Maple, Othello, Mopple and Zora invade the “Smartest Sheep in Glennkill” contest to reveal the murderer in a pantomime the flock cooked up.

Definitely recommended to the mystery fan looking for something a bit less grim than Grisham or for those aficionados of sheep novels.