Selected by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as her favorite mystery of 2013 and one of the top ten mysteries of the year by The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Nolan, S.J. Gazan’s debut novel The Dinosaur Feather is a classic of Scandinavian noir. With keenly observed and deeply flawed characters, this scintillating thriller uniquely employs one of the most controversial and fascinating areas of contemporary dinosaur and avian research in its diabolical twists. The Dinosaur Feather has been published in more than a dozen countries and won the Danish Crime Novel of the Decade Award. The Financial Times called it “a top-flight thriller—smart and outrageously entertaining.”
Biology postgraduate, PhD hopeful, and single mom Anna Bella Nor is just two weeks away from defending her thesis on the saurian origin of birds when her academic supervisor, the highly respected yet widely despised Dr. Lars Helland, is found dead in his office chair at the University of Copenhagen. The police discover a copy of Anna’s thesis in the dead man’s bloody lap.
When the autopsy suggests that Helland was murdered in a fiendishly ingenious way, brilliant but tormented young Police Superintendent Søren Marhauge begins the daunting task of unraveling the knotted skeins of interpersonal and intellectual intrigue among the scientists at the university.
Everyone involved with the investigation — from Anna Bella Nor to Helland’s numerous rivals to Marhauge’s own ex-wife, who is pregnant with her current husband’s child — has something to hide, complicating the investigation and presenting the detective with the greatest professional and personal challenge of his career.
Think of The Dinosaur Feather as The Girl with the Dinosaur Tattoo. It doesn’t quite reach the same literary heights as that other, more famous work of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it an interesting read nonetheless.
The plot is a bit convoluted, but the basic mystery involves the murder of biology student Anna Bella Nor’s academic supervisor. Nor didn’t like the guy, so at first the murder is more of an inconvenience given she is scheduled to deliver a defense of her dissertation in less than a week. But as she learns more about him, the more clues she gathers about why he was targeted and the identity of his murderer.
I’m leaving out quite a lot of detail because The Dinosaur Feather really is a novel packed with multiple mysteries, most of them of involving family secrets. The plot touches on dinosaur paleontology, academic politics, sexual desire, and the burden of not being honest with the people you love, but in truth they never mesh particularly well. As a straight-forward murder mystery, the novel doesn’t satisfy given the characters are more wrapped up in dealing with their own problems than solving crimes. It is much more successful as a character study – Nor and the rest of the cast are believable, flawed human beings, and as a reader you become genuinely interested in their fates.
If there is one sour note it a side plot about an ornithologist who doesn’t accept the now widely held view that birds descended from dinosaurs. His story does nothing to advance the overall plot, and the character seems little more than a straw man the author uses to ridicule real-life scientists who hold his beliefs – he is arrogant, wrongheaded, and even a potential pedophile.
Should you pick up The Dinosaur Feather? Many readers of traditional crime fiction will probably find the plot too unfocused for their tastes. But I think that despite its flaws, the novel is worth giving a try, if only for the excellent characters that populate its pages.
- The Dinosaur Feather has racked up multiple awards in its home country of Denmark, including awards for best novel of the year and crime novel of the decade.
- Author Sissel-Jo Gazan is a biology graduate from the University of Copenhagen. Her website (in Danish) is gyldendal.dk/sissel-jo-gazan