Book review: The Arc of the Swallow, by Sissel-Jo Gazan

5 01 2018

Sissel-Jo Gazan is a Danish biologist and author, now living in Germany. She has written two crime novels featuring police officer Søren Marhauge and palaeobiologist Anna Bella Nor, the first of which, The Dinosaur Feather (which I’ve reviewed here) was named Danish Novel of the Decade.

TheArcOfTheSwallow

The Arc of the Swallow (Svalens graf, 2013, translated by Charlotte Barslund) deals, as did its predecessor The Dinosaur Feather, with the suspicious death of an academic at the University of Copenhagen. This time around, the deceased is noted immunologist Kristian Storm, whose research focus upon non-specific effects of vaccines has for several years been a controversial matter. When a colleague finds Storm hanging in his office, the police are quick to assess the death as a suicide; but Marhauge, who has been promoted beyond frontline investigation into an administrative position, becomes convinced that something’s awry.

Gazan’s characters are sometimes distinctly too given to monologuing: there are some very lengthy tracks of verbal exposition, which sometimes too nakedly appear to be taking the form of necessary backstory. Against that, her characterisation is strong, and the mystery presented in Arc is both meticulously constructed (common enough, I suppose, in crime fiction) and intriguingly backgrounded by well-informed scientific speculation (distinctly less common). The story is as much told through the eyes of breast-cancer patient Marie Skov, Storm’s research student, as it is from principal investigator Søren Marhauge’s perspective, and it’s to Gazan’s credit that she makes the work and home life of both characters sufficiently detailed and compelling that there’s never a sense of disappointment in having to switch from one protagonist to the other.

The scientific content of the book bears comment. Its central thesis—that one of the widely-administered vaccines used by the WHO is effective in immunising against the infections it targets, but has undesirable side effects—would at first glance appear to echo the complaints of anti-vaxxers. However, the detail within the storyline, emphasised repeatedly, is that this is best remedied through a better vaccine. To clarify this too much would be to risk spoiling aspects of the mystery, so I’ll simply note that the book does an excellent job of carefully detailing nontrivial immunological concepts in a way that doesn’t detract from the impetus of the story. If you’re in favour of cerebrality in your fiction, it’s worth a read.

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