Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann, trans Anthea Bell

Four legs good, two legs bad
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The Independent Culture

Anthea Bell is one of our most distinguished translators, who has brought us, among other treasures, ETA Hoffmann's wonderful cult novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. So when she elects to translate an unknown young German author, we might assume that there is something special about Three Bags Full - even if it is about sheep solving a murder mystery. And it was Bell's name that got me beyond the initial reaction of "Not another gimmicky detective story!"

Leonie Swann eases the reader in gently, among a flock surrounding the body of George, their kindly shepherd, on an Irish hillside. In between nibbles, they contemplate the spade sticking out of his chest. Led by Miss Maple, the cleverest ewe, the sheep decide to find out who killed him.

There are a few clues: the imprint of a hoof on George's chest, the very expensive watch he wore when planting radishes. And what was the mysterious big grey creature who terrified a straying lamb? Humans, as Miss Maple muses, are herd animals, and a human wolf is stalking the village herd. The plot unravels as satisfyingly as an old woolly cardigan.

These are literary sheep, for George read to them every evening and gave them names: Othello, the black ram, whom he rescued from a dogfight; Melmoth, the mysterious missing ram; Cordelia, who loves unusual words. The reader will also pick up references to Hamlet and Wuthering Heights, but beyond this game-playing lies a story of odd, intermittent courage and solidarity.

Bookish types will enjoy the flock's dedication to narrative structure, as they determine what kind of a story they are in. They have their own archetypal mythology, in the fables told by mother-ewes to lambs. The ovine viewpoint works surprisingly well: the landscape is hauntingly described, as is the sensitivity to scent and taste, and terror of that monstrous figure - the village butcher.

The murder story involves a few improbabilities, and the denouement some rather unlikely fleecy thespianism. But one willingly overlooks these minor awkwardnesses as the sheep become a parable for humanity. The characters of the human herd are nicely balanced against those of the flock; the book has charm without whimsy, and is touching without being sentimental. It's rather as if Agatha Christie had re-written The Wind in the Willows, and I ended by loving it.

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