“He was healthy yesterday,” said Maude. Her ears twitched nervously.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” pointed out Sir Ritchfield, the oldest ram in the flock. “He didn’t die of illness. Spades are not an illness.”
Indeed! This clever start to Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full immediately draws readers into the story, and it is an unusual one. As part of the book discussion series, “Unusual Sleuths” (see here), this mystery novel delivers in spades, pun intended. When an Irish shepherd is found dead, his flock of sheep set about to solve his murder. Leading the investigation is Miss Maple, “the cleverest sheep in the flock, maybe the cleverest sheep in Glenkill.” Aided by Othello, a black Hebridean ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino ram with the sharpest memory; and fifteen other sheep (a handy list of the flock is included), Miss Maple will follow the clues and her nose to solve the crime.
Author Swann, born in Germany, spent some time in Paris and Ireland, has worked in the fields of journalism and public relations, and, as of 2005, was working on an English doctorate. Incredibly she has written a believable story set in Ireland (not her native country) with a well-executed and nonhuman viewpoint. Although one could make the case that there are really two types of flock in the novel, the sleuthing sheep and the suspect villagers, and they are not wholly dissimilar. The sheep have very human qualities, but the story carefully confines us to their thoughts and how they view the world around them.
Fortunately, the sheep are perfectly situated to witness the events in the story. Several villagers have a keen interest in the shepherd’s caravan, and something that may be concealed within. There’s also something buried underneath the dolmen on the pasture near where the shepherd died and the Thing—as the sheep refer to it—a necklace belonging to a key character which could incriminate them.
It turns out that the shepherd knew of a murder that had been committed seven years prior to his death, but before we learn this vital fact, we meet the various…suspects. In many cases, the sheep learn their names as we do. However, there are some standouts. There’s another shepherd, Gabriel, whom the sheep seem to like. There’s the butcher, Ham, whom the sheep abhor. And then there’s God. Well, not really, but the sheep don’t quite understand the role of a priest.
The sheep in discussing the case in Chapter Three…
“I still think it was God who killed him,” said Mopple…
“Why would he do a thing like that?” asked Maude.
“God moves in mysterious ways,” explained Cloud…
This quirky humor appears througout the book and is well-suited to the story. In particular, Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen might well have you laughing out loud. Some of the humans are starting to catch on and realize the sheep are watching them. “A white ram is was…Pushed me off the cliff top…Is that normal, now? I mean they’re only sheep. And now that one. Bright white…that was no normal sheep. But why? I’ve been seeing him ever since, wondering why…” And the speaker of those lines is about to see them again because they’re listening at the window!
It could almost be a horror plot…the sheep are watching, the sheep are listening…but this is most decidedly a cozy mystery, and the sheep, child-like in their inquisitiveness and search for justice, are really just smarter than your average sheep.
With literary allusions—Miss Marple, Melmoth the Wanderer, and Wuthering Heights—a bit of Irish legend, and a solid murder mystery, Three Bags Full is an entertaining, if somewhat philosophical, read. After all, one could ask: just who are the sheep here?
By the way, hardcover editions contain a little sheep in the lower right corner that leaps as you flip the pages.