Monday, August 26, 2013

Three Bags Full

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Three Bags Full (Doubleday, 2005).

This is certainly one of the most unusual detective novels that I've ever read, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it was a winner. I wonder what Chandler would have made of it. Far from featuring a knight, not himself mean, walking down mean streets in search of capital-T Truth, it features a flock of neurotic and slightly stupid sheep, wondering what will happen to them now that their shepherd, George, has died, his body found in the meadow impaled by a spade.

Unfortunately for the capital-T Truth and any hope that it has of coming to light, the policeman responsible for order in this quiet, craggy corner of Ireland is even more stupid than the sheep, willingly turning a blind eye to all sorts of criminal activity that has strange visitors coming around to George's caravan, with its impenetrable locks, confusing the sheep even further. One thing is certain: George had read to his flock for years, and they have a general understanding of the importance of justice. George's killer must be brought to it. Wherever that is.

I really appreciated the author's ability to create a large cast of distinctive and memorable characters. From a black ram with mysterious origins called Othello to the eccentric Mopple, who has the best memory among the sheep, they appear to be at least a little bit equipped to tackle this investigation, but then they realize that they can't actually count themselves to ensure that everyone is present, as none of them can count higher than ten and do not know how many of them are supposed to be there in the first place. And even when they identify a suspect, how can they tell the humans?

To be honest, this book does get a little long-winded. It's more than merely a very strange detective story with odd rules, it's an exploration of the philosophy of its unusual protagonists. About two-thirds of the way into the book, I was a little restless with a case that couldn't go anywhere, and sheep freaking out about the possibility of life after death. The sheep spend a lot of time freaking out, come to think of it. Some of the instances are pretty funny, since their intellectual limitations keep crashing down on them, but more often than not it's just too much of life itself that does them in. As an experiment, it probably succeeds, but not by a great deal, and I find myself hesitant to recommend it very strongly. Its highs are interesting, but with so many long stretches of tedium, it was a drag to finish.

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