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ON CRIME

Sherlocks in sheep's clothing

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story
By Leonie Swann
Translated, from the German, by Anthea Bell
Doubleday, 341 pp., $22.95

Only the Cat Knows
By Marian Babson
St. Martin’s, 224 pp., $22.95

Little Tiny Teeth
By Aaron Elkins
Berkley, 304 pp., $23.95

There's nothing new about a mystery novel with an animal sleuth, but Leonie Swann's debut novel, first published in Germany, "Three Bags Full," is nevertheless something delightfully different. There's a whole herd of four-legged crime solvers -- sheep. I know, it sounds hokey, but if you love a good mystery and have even the slightest taste for "Charlotte's Web" or "Babe," trust me, you'll be enchanted.

The sheep include the last flock of Cladoir sheep in Ireland , bred for wool (not for meat). Their beloved shepherd, George, a loner who the sheep realize has left his own "flock," reads to them every evening and has promised to take them to Europe. One morning, the sheep find George lying in the grass, "unusually cold and lifeless." They think he was done in by a wolf. But the cleverest among them, Miss Maple (a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple), explains: "Even the most sophisticated wolves didn't drive spades through the bodies of their victims. For such a tool was undoubtedly sticking out of the shepherd's insides, which were now wet with dew."

Othello, the only black sheep in the flock, adds, "It can only have been a human who did it -- or a very large monkey" -- a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which the orangutan did it. Realizing it was murder, the sheep bleat for "justice."

The sheep are, of course, unreliable narrators. Their muddled notion of justice derives from a mystery novel George read to them but didn't finish because it was too upsetting. Their understanding of relationships between men and women is based on the romance novels George read them. They overhear a priest say "The Lord is my shepherd" and become convinced that "the Lord" is the butcher, the last person on earth that they'd want for their shepherd, smelling as he does of death.

The combination of sly humor and naiveté makes this novel a surprising and refreshing read. The herd is filled with vivid characters laid out in loving detail. And the sense of place is vivid: "The sea looked as if it had been licked clean, blue and clear and smooth ." Often profound, this novel invites us to "imagine you're living in a flock, and one day you find out that the others aren't sheep at all -- they're wolves."

The cat is the more traditional animal sleuth, and British author Marian Babson has written numerous cat cozies. In "Only the Cat Knows," the cat is Gloriana, "a white Angora with sapphire eyes."

A nameless narrator dreams of falling from an "ivy-clad tower of an ancient building " and realizes: the nightmare really happened to the narrator's twin sister, Nessa. That night, Nessa is found, barely alive, at the foot of the ramparts outside the gothic fortress where she worked as multimillionaire Everett Oversall's assistant. Did she fall, or was she pushed?

Twins have long been a staple in mystery plots, but there's a nice twist here as the narrator turns out to be Nessa's fraternal twin, Vance, a world-renowned female impersonator . Vance makes himself up as Nessa and arrives at Oversall's castle, swathed in bandages, determined to discover what happened. He meets Oversall's "harem" of employees, a nest of blond vipers. Nessa's cat, Gloriana, becomes Vance's familiar, sensing danger and alerting him to clues.

For all its cozy lightness, I found this novel a slow go. Surprising plot twists are few and far between as our hero spends much of the book locked in a bedroom soliloquizing or roaming the grounds chasing apparitions, never picking up on obvious clues or getting answers to the simplest questions. Disappointingly, Vance is never convincing as a guy in drag -- like Victor/Victoria, he feels more like a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.

In "Little Tiny Teeth," Aaron Elkins's "skeleton detective" and forensics professor Gideon Oliver cruises the Amazon on the maiden voyage of the Adelita, a prison ship refitted for passengers. Also on board is professor Arden Scofield, who has chartered the boat for a botanical research trip. You know things will not go smoothly when Scofield reaches into his duffel bag for a book and comes out with a "colossal, hairy, brown spider clamped around his hand and halfway up his forearm." The entomologist on board is thrilled and quickly bottles the beast. Soon there are more threats to Scofield's life, and the passengers and crew compose a Christie-styled cast of suspects, all of whom have reasons to detest the guy.

Elkins makes the reader feel the heat and "mind-deadening" humidity of the Amazon basin: "Even his bones felt soggy." There's fascinating information about shrunken heads, poison-dart frogs, and of course "tiny-teethed" piranha. But the story never really grabs an emotional hold on the reader because there's never anything personal at stake for its cerebral hero. He's a dispassionate observer and so is the reader.

Hallie Ephron is author of "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead With Style" and co-author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries. Contact her through www.hallieephron.com.

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