A slightly more unusual mystery novel under review on the blog today. When you think of German crime fiction you tend to think of gritty pieces such as Ferdinand Von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015) or The Child (2006) by Sebastian Fitzek. What I am fairly sure you won’t be thinking of is a mystery novel set in rural Ireland, which focuses on a flock of anthropomorphised sheep. This out of the ordinary story came my way via another blogger who although it didn’t work for them, thought of me and that I might enjoy it. Hoping that’s a good thing.
In particular these anthropomorphised sheep have a problem on their hands, as they have found their shepherd, George Glenn, dead in their field with a spade through him. Since this is a mystery novel you won’t be surprised that within the flock there is a sheep named Miss Maple, who is known within her group for being remarkably clever. Nor will you be surprised that she and a few of others are determined to discover what happened to George. Whilst they might not be going around with magnifying glasses the sheep do find a number of physical clues, as well as overhearing the humans who finally discover the body themselves. Further human activity during the coming days in the field, especially at night near George’s caravan also gives the sheep, and the readers for that matter, plenty of food for thought. Human suspects range far and wide, from George’s lover and his wife to Ham the Butcher, who seems to have his eye on George’s flock.
However, the sheep have other problems to confront, such as the arrival of the new shepherd Gabriel and there is the question of what will happen to them now. Yet for Maple there is a further concern. On George’s body she saw a single sheep’s hoof print. Could one of the flock be somehow involved in the case? Suspicion easily hovers over two of rams. The first is the lead ram, Sir Ritchfield, who oscillates from suppressing information to appearing as though his mind is definitely wandering to say the least. The other ram, who is the literal black sheep in the family, Othello, is also a suspicious character. He has not been with the group for long and the narrative periodically hints at his troubled and traumatic past, which gives him plenty of reasons to be none too keen on humans.
Passive sleuthing soon changes into active detective work, as the sheep strive to unravel the numerous mysterious events which have happened, frequently driven by a need for justice for George – that is if someone could explain what justice means to them…
What prevented this book from ‘entering the realms of fantasy,’ as Dad’s Army character Captain Mainwaring would say, was that although Swann humanised the sheep, giving them a great deal more thought and cognitive powers, she didn’t cause them to act un-sheep like. Sheep aren’t flying planes or firing guns. They sleep, they explore and graze, though sometimes this exploring is of course more targeted in the case of some of the sheep observing a suspect inside their home. In fact the author actually utilises natural abilities in sheep for the detecting cause, in particular their ability to smell and what they deduce from it. Their response to George’s death is made to feel realistic within the context of the book as they begin by sharing their memories of him, then move on to enjoying the freedom of having no shepherd, to then realising that they miss him.
As with any novel strong characterisation is important and it is to Swann’s credit that she manages to entertainingly individualise the sheep, yet also show the psychological effects of being in a group. This is underpinned by the way she confidently establishes the setting and world of her book and I enjoyed how she opens her book with the initial thoughts of the sheep in George’s death:
‘“He was healthy yesterday,” said Maude. Her ears twitched nervously.
“That doesn’t mean anything… He didn’t due of an illness. Spades are not an illness.”’
It is hard to not like the very matter of fact way the sheep puts things and these first comments are followed up with a line which says that ‘a single crow had settled on his woolly Norwegian sweater and was studying his internal arrangements with professional interest,’ giving the crow a police doctor like role. Any minute I was expecting it to give an approximate time of death!
Like many fictional sleuths the sheep are not infallible and it is amusing when they get the wrong end of the stick when listening to the humans talk. You might imagine that this sort of book would be a comic crime novel from beginning to end, but actually I think this is a story which takes its’ setup seriously and the humorous side of it is never overdone. Despite the book predominantly focusing on the sheep characters, the author does not overlook the human members of the cast and it is interesting how your opinions of them change over the book as more and more information about them and their lives is revealed. It is also quite entertaining to see how some of the characters respond to the sheep, with guilty minds leading to fantastical interpretations of the sheep activities.
So far so good. But yeah it is time for the not so good bits about the novel. I think the main problem this story had was its length. For the type of plot it had it was simply too long and the pacing really began to suffer by the half way mark. This was not helped by the long winded style found in the parts which cover longer sections of individual sheep thoughts. I think also in the final third/quarter the stability of world Swann creates begins to wobble quite a lot and have bouts of surrealism, as she tries to finish her detective plot with sleuthing sheep as the vehicle. How do the sheep reveal the solution and allow justice to be done after all? The way she gets around this is clever, but at the same time it didn’t feel satisfying.
So on the whole the concept of the book was enjoyable and achieved well in the first half of the book, but unfortunately for me the book petered off considerably in the final half.