The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese is a delicate balance of sci-fi, mystery, and humor.
“That's a really big sheep,” said Erasmus Keane, his observational powers functioning as flawlessly as ever.
The woman in the lab coat nodded curtly. “He's a Lincoln Longwool,” she said. “Largest breed of sheep in the world.” She had introduced herself as Dr. Kelly Takemago, Director of Research for the Esper Corporation. We were standing in her lab, a vast white room filled with the low humming of vaguely terrifying machines that hung from the ceiling like colossal clockwork bats. Poised in the middle of the room was the sheep in question, which Keane and I were regarding with professional interest. The sheep, in turn, was regarding us. It didn't appear impressed.
Our narrator is Blake Fowler, an erstwhile chief of security that has become a professional babysitter and bodyguard. The detective, Erasmus Keane, is made along your standard Sherlockian lines: he has absolutely no social skills, very poor hygiene, is so caught up in his own thoughts that he rarely eats or pays attention to those around him, can be a complete asshole, and is always—always—the smartest man in the room.
He's also got a shady past; Erasmus Keane is not his real name, something Fowler already knows, but just why he became Keane is yet to be revealed.
In true Insufferable Genius fashion, Keane also dislikes being called a “private investigator.” That's far too prosaic for him. He prefers “phenomenological inquisitor.”
“Delusions of grandeur, too,” noted Takemago coldly. “In what way does a 'phenomenological inquistor' differ from a two-bit private investigator?”
I was ready for that one. “Phenomenology,” I began, “is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. The methods of a phenomenological inquistor differ from those of a typical investigator in that the P.I. regards each case as a matter of resolving the tension between the appearance of things and things as they actually are. Further, the P.I. does not limit his understanding of the 'real' to merely physical phenomena, accepting that consciousness, memory, and experiences are no less real than, for example, chairs, automobiles, or” —I glanced at the sheep— “farm animals. …Finally the P.I. differs from a scientist in that he does not attempt to isolate himself from his subject or to observe reality under artificially-created laboratory conditions, preferring to seek out apparent anomalies and explore them on their own terms rather than reduce them to preexisting categories.”
“That sounds like bullshit,” said Takemago.
By page six, you're already feeling for Fowler. What a job—the Watsons of the world (typically) get the short end of the stick when it comes to the mystery solving. Thankfully, for all that Keane can be a pill, Fowler is a likeable and relatable guy, so it's not hard to root for the team.
In their debut outing, Fowler and Keane have a full plate on their hands. It's 2039, and Los Angeles has changed quite a bit, thanks to an event called the Collapse. Back in 2028, law and order were temporarily suspended when the economy and infrastructures fell apart at the seams.
The government was only able to save the bulk of the city by walling off a section now known as the D.Z., or Disincorporated Zone, where crime runs amok and warlords call the shots. Keane, naturally, has set up his “phenomenological inquisitor's” office on the very edge of this zone so he and Fowler can take cases on both sides of the law.
Their first client is the immense Esper Corporation, a scientific organization that has taken the whole “cloned sheep” controversy to stunning new heights. One of their latest creations, and the eponymous ovis, Mary, has been kidnapped by some seedy individuals.
Dr. Takemago assures our heroes that Esper's sheep were designed to have human-compatible organs for transplant situations, but neither of them are quite buying that—if the sheep are only good for their organs, why would the Corporation be so desperate to get Mary back? And, why would the thieves have left the other three sheep in the herd behind?
No sooner have they gotten started on The Case of the Lost Sheep when they get another client. Fowler opens the door to find none other than Priya Mistry on their doorstop, the world's most popular television actress. Priya is convinced someone is trying to kill her, and her paranoia seems well-founded: someone's been slipping warning notes in her clothes.
The only problem? The notes are apparently written by someone calling themselves Noogus, which a distraught Priya explains was her beloved childhood toy. Fowler thinks the diva has cracked, but Keane agrees to take on The Case of the Concerned Teddy Bear.
When an explosion on the set of Priya's TV show has deadly consequences and the actress has no recollection of Fowler or Keane when they next see her, it's beginning to look less like paranoid delusions and more like something extremely devious and evil is playing out.
“Paranoia is a form of psychosis,” said Keane. “Whether or not it's borne out by the facts.”
I frowned. “You're saying the woman downstairs is crazy for thinking there are people out to get her, despite the fact that there actually are people out to get her.”
“The ability to correlate one's condition with external circumstances doesn't preclude the possibility of a pathological response,” Keane said. “It's perfectly natural to be paranoid if people are out to get you. It's also perfectly natural to hemorrhage internally when exposed to the Ebola virus. Neither condition, however, is optimal.”
“So the healthy response would be to remain ignorant, or delusional.”
“Depends how you define healthy. She'd certainly be happier.”
“Until she winds up dead.”
“That's true for everybody,” said Keane, with a shrug.
What unfolds is a twisted story of abused genetic science, cloning, mental illness, murder, and conspiracy. In true noir fashion, The Case of the Lost Sheep and The Case of the Confused Teddy Bear are actually one case. There's a femme fatale—an aging actress turned global media dictator—and post-apocalyptic mobsters (the impressive warlord Mag-Lev). Fowler's Girl Friday, April, is a helpful lawyer, convinced Keane is hiding dark, nefarious secrets, and our gun-savvy narrator continues to pine over his lost love, Gwen, who disappeared years ago.
The Big Sheep is a brilliant cocktail. One part Sherlock Holmes (Keane), one part Philip Marlowe (Fowler), and with a hefty dash of Blade Runner stylization and sensibilities—it also has humorous and philosophical flairs that wouldn't be out of place in Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
“Imagine what it must be like. How would you react if you found out you were one of many, that what you thought of as 'you' was simply a template for any number of points of consciousness existing in the universe? It's the ultimate philosophical question writ large: what is my relationship as an individual to the other? I suspect many of us would react with shock, hate, anger, fear. But that's not how Bryn Jhaveri reacted. When one Bryn met another in my office, there was a moment of shock, but very quickly they were watching bad sitcoms together, like old friends. Sisters, even. Can you imagine having that level of comfort with yourself? The ability to be okay with the fact that somebody else is running around with your personality? The level of empathy each Bryn is capable of possessing for the others is astounding. Now imagine that one Bryn becomes aware of the existence of all the others, and how they are being manipulated and abused. What does she do? How does she express her empathy for them?” asked Keane.
It's definitely a mind-blowing story, and the ending is the exact opposite of predictable. Kroese has cooked up something that pleases a wide swath of genre fans—while reading, I thought of several friends to recommend it to, people who normally have utterly conflicting tastes and interests.
The pace is frenetic and twistier than a corkscrew; this is definitely a read-in-one-sitting book. And, while most of the central plot threads are neatly tied off by the closing page, there's a bombshell that guarantees you'll look forward to the next installment.
In the world of noir—even cyberpunk, Philip K. Dick-style noir—things are never quite open and shut for our heroes.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.