Carpe Librum: Flocking to mysteries

Feb 16 • Book Club, Books, EXTRA! EXTRA!, FEATURE BOTTOMNo Comments on Carpe Librum: Flocking to mysteries

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance on our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s weekly book column, which will dissect a current title with an old book. Essentially, literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well.

Shepherd’s Crook

Sheila Webster Boneham

Midnight Ink, 2015, 324 pgs.

Three Bags Full

Leonie Swann

Flying Dolphin Press, 2005, 341 pgs.

shepherdSheila Webster Boneham’s latest installment of her Animals in Focus Mystery Series, “Shepherd’s Crook,” is a page turner, and not just for dog lovers.

Animal photographer Janet MacPhail and her dog, Jay, set out to uncover the truth about the murder of a shepherd whose flock Jay has herded in sheepherding competitions. Her sleuth, Janet MacPhail (love the pun in the name, n’est ce pas?), is compelling, charming, and infuriating in the ways that you want your best friend to be.  She’s fun to read about and even more fun to want to give advice to—which is a long way of saying that Boneham has made MacPhail so real and so human that I felt like I could pick up the phone and ask Janet to come over for dinner.

Boneham takes her readers deeply into the emotional roller coaster of Janet’s world, so readers truly inhabit MacPhail’s emotions on intrinsic levels, not surface stereotypes. Take for example MacPhail arriving at her van to find her beloved Australian Shepherd, Jay, missing:

“I am told that I screamed.  It may be true. I’m not much of a screamer, but as I stared at the empty crate in the back of my van, my world went black. If I did scream, it had to be my dog’s name, because that was the word I clung to: Jay, Jay, Jay, Jay.”

Been there, done that. It is terrifying and destabilizing. Boneham captures it perfectly.

Aside from her gift for characterization, she plots a murder mystery with intricate details, hairpin turns and white-knuckle captivation. In this book Janet and Jay find themselves wrapped up in the search for the murder of a shepherd. Boneham does a wonderful job of dropping red herrings, endangering her sleuth, and keeping the reader on their toes.  The only draw back to the book is that MacPhail’s dogs are much better behaved than mine or yours. But, Boneham has written multiple books on dog care and training, so, of course her fictional dogs are also a vehicle to subtly communicate some of those points. (We readers can sigh wistfully at the thought of such well behaved quadrupeds…)

Of course, if we are talking about solving the murder of a shepherd, Leonie Swann’s “Three Bags Full” (translated from German to English by Anthea Bell in 2006) remains one of the most enchanting books I have ever read. In a remote village in Ireland, a shepherd is killed. His flock of sheep set out to find his killer and solve the crime. Told from the point of view of the sheep—whose 19 separate personalities and gifts work together to form a flock—it is brilliant, charming and insightful. Their perspective of humans and our social interactions make for penetrating commentary. Of course, they are sheep so they do get distracted by grass—and frequently, especially Mopple The Whale (who is perpetually hungry).

sheepdetectiveThe flock inhabit their own mythology and story while interacting with the human world and our concepts of story and reality. Collective responsibility is a very different experience in a flock of sheep than it is for humans—even humans in a small village. It’s not a bad reality check for us.

One might assume from these two books that someone has a grudge against shepherds and is knocking them off around the world. Frankly, it’s not exactly a growth industry anymore; however, mystery novels still are. They have spawned more subgenres than Agatha Christie could ever have imagined: cooking, knitting, animals, home renovations, Amish, B&B, holidays, Scottish, candy—the list goes on and on.

Certainly figuring out the puzzle is intriguing (I solved “Three Bags Full” before the sheep, but not “Shepherd’s Crook”).  Yet, I think the real attraction is that since Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, mystery began to evolve to reflect human psychology. In the pages of a mystery novel we find cautionary tales, reminders of the importance of observation and analysis, and even bits of our own mistakes.

Swann uses the voices of sheep to explore the foibles of humanity in ways that would be impossible from human narrators.  She is spot on! Boneham’s books remind us that what we see on the surface with our friends and colleagues is just that: the surface. We are all struggling with more than we show. Sometimes, the real mystery is not whodunnit? But rather, where is our humanity?  Hats off to both women, their work is fun, fascinating and insightful all while providing enthralling entertainment.

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