Book review: The Dinosaur Feather, by Sissel-Jo Gazan

5 01 2017

Sissel-Jo Gazan is a Danish biologist and author, now living in Berlin. Her work has won several awards.


The Dinosaur Feather (Dinosaurens fjer, 2008, translated by Charlotte Barslund) has been judged ‘Danish Crime Novel of the Decade’. It’s Gazan’s first crime novel and, so far as I know, the first of her books available in English translation, though several earlier works are listed on her (Danish language) Wikipedia page.

Anna Bella Nor has just completed her MSc thesis on the still-contentious issue of the evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. (Anna Bella’s research supports the majority view that modern birds are the direct descendants of extinct dinosaurs, rather than the still-resilient but struggling hypothesis that birds and dinosaurs instead arose separately from a common archosaur ancestor.) But the thesis is still sitting, unread, on the desk of her supervisor Lars Helland when an agitated fellow research student, Johannes, finds Prof Helland dying at his desk, slouched, bloodstained, and with his severed tongue resting on his chest. Medics are unable to revive the Professor; Anna Bella’s department becomes a crime scene, and the police investigation is headed up by Superintendent Søren Marhauge. It becomes apparent that there are academics who for a long time have vehemently disagreed with Helland’s published research (most notably the renowned Canadian bird-physiology expert Clive Freeman, who is scheduled to visit the University of Copenhagen for a conference in the weeks ahead), but who would stoop to murder over such things?

The Dinosaur Feather is very well-constructed. I suspect its palaeobiological background (which forms an important and fascinating component of the story) is spot-on: Gazan writes with the assurance of one who knows of such matters, and given her background this would seem highly credible. (I did note, just to be persnickerty, that there are a couple of references to ‘Archaeopteryx Lithographica‘ in the opening chapter, where the orthodox nomenclature would feature a lower-case ‘l’ rather than a capital, but I suspect this could be the sort of error that sneaks in during translation; and my recollection is that the subsequent instances of taxonomic nomenclature are not inappropriately capitalised.) The other structural aspects of the book, too, are sound, and the characters are solid, to the point that there ultimately seems to be a skeleton within every closet. Much of this character complexity gets revealed (to the characters themselves, or their close colleagues) within the course of the investigation, sometimes threatening to overload the narrative. If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that it does at times seem verbose: there are some very long monologues within the book’s five-hundred-plus pages, and I did find myself thinking that various important sequences could have been conveyed considerably more succinctly, in language more finely crafted. The prose doesn’t really sing; it’s the story that carries the tune. But it is, nonetheless, a compelling read, and the ending is well accomplished.

I’ll be interested to see how Gazan’s follow-up, The Arc of the Swallow (another ornithologically-informed mystery, again featuring Supt. Marhauge), measures up against her crime debut.




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