It all starts with a missing sheep and a paranoid celebrity. Blake Fowler works for Erasmus Keane, a private dick who insists on being called a “phenomenological inquisitor.” The two men live and work in Los Angeles in 2039, several years after a devastating economic collapse that resulted in the city being divided into LA proper and the Disincorporated Zone. During the Collapse, crime ran wild and more than a few businesses and labs took advantage of the weak enforcement to conduct morally bankrupt and ethically dubious projects. During this period of chaos, Fowler’s girlfriend Gwen disappeared and was never seen again.
When one of their experimental Lincoln Longwool sheep disappears, Esper Corporation hires Keane and Fowler to track it down. In a seemingly unrelated case, young celebutante Priya Mistry believes someone is trying to kill her and hires the investigators to figure out who is sending her cryptic messages. Priya is freaking out over seeing herself in commercials she doesn’t remember making, but when Fowler and Keane run into her later on and she claims to have no memory of ever meeting them, the detectives realize something big is amiss. Things get complicated when the Case of the Lost Sheep and the Case of the Concerned Teddy Bear turn out to be less unconnected than previously thought. There is a conspiracy afoot and victims piling up and Fowler and Keane must root it out before it gets them, too.
Despite its title, The Big Sheep is closer to Sherlock Holmes than Philip Marlowe. Think Philip K. Dick by way of Steven Moffat with a splash of Raymond Chandler, or House crossed with Dirk Gently in Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. It’s a quirky, light read full of entertaining characters, bizarre scenarios, and over complicated but easily understood plot twists. Fowler is a fairly straightforward detective with an eye for process, but his main job is to keep the eccentric and unreliable Keane tethered to reality, as well as to apologize to their clients for his dismissive behavior. Keane approaches cases by looking not at the evidence but at “the tension between the appearance of things and things as they actually are” and “seek[s] out apparent anomalies and explore[s] the on their own terms.” He sees things at intellectual angles no one else does and lives by the notion that nothing is impossible, only improbable.
The only real trouble I had comes down to characterization. Fowler is the only character who gets any substantial development throughout the novel. Keane has just enough of personality to come off as a bit of a prick. We follow Fowler as he does most of the legwork while Keane often vanishes to hide in his office and “think.” And since the audience barely gets to see any of Keane put his brilliant detective skills to use, all that’s left is a guy who is smart enough to put all the obvious pieces together slightly ahead of everyone else mostly because he didn’t have to hassle with an actual investigation. He is not quite charming or clever enough to stick the sarcasm landing, so by the end of the novel I still couldn’t understand why Fowler liked being around him. Keane isn’t totally unlikable, however. Instead he hovers somewhere between dick-ish anti-hero and casually abrasive hero.
It’s the secondary characters that really suffer. The secondaries are marvelously diverse in race and gender but have such two-dimensional personalities that they’re more trope than character. The villains are one-note baddies with obvious motivations. Dr. Takemago, April, Roy, and Pavel are sidekicks that are so sparse personality wise that one exists only as an exposition device, another exists only as a plot device, a third is the embodiment of the Dumb Muscle trope, and the last has no lines or defined personality. The victim is a damsel in distress, literally and repeatedly, with almost no agency and a propensity for hysterics. It doesn’t help that nearly every woman in the novel is defined first and foremost by her level of attractiveness or sexual relationship status to Fowler and Keane. Part of the objectification is tied into the plot, but the rest of it adds an uncomfortable layer of bro to Fowler and Keane. For Hera’s sake, Fowler’s missing girlfriend is given no surname and little background outside her relationship with him.
But don’t despair! Beyond the quibbles with the characters, The Big Sheep is a funny, fun beach read. Fans of Richard Kadrey’s The Everything Box will find a lot of similar things to love with Kroese’s novel. The plot is twisty, turny absurdist humor chockablock with pseudo science not so out there that it doesn’t feel plausible but is still just weird enough to really play into the futurism of the novel. While the mysteries are pretty obvious to anyone who reads a lot of mysteries, watching the characters sort the answers themselves is half the fun. Kroese’s fictional dystopian Los Angeles is detailed and well thought out, with background characters and situations melding into a compelling universe.
Sometimes Kroese drowns the plot in too much exposition, with characters frequently stopping in the middle of an action sequence to stand around and spell out plot points for several pages. Outside the soggy infodumps, the pacing moves at a steady clip. The themes at the heart of the story—objectification, deification of celebrities, gray morality—are dealt with broadly enough to prove Kroese’s points but not so deeply as to turn the book into a philosophical debate. I’m also not entirely convinced the thrill of the premise was paid off by the resolution, but there are enough loose threads for a sequel. Given who that second entry might theoretically revolve around, put me down for more than a little excited.
It’s hard to parse out whether those aforementioned grievances are more on the personal preference or textual issues side, so I’ll wrap it up with a broad net of YMMV. If, like me, your interest in a story is tied to having relatable, intriguing characters, well, at least there’s Fowler. If the creativity of a story revs your engine, then The Big Sheep may end up being one of the most fun SFF books you’ll read all summer.
The Big Sheep is available now from St. Martin’s Press.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.