The Institute of Biology at the University of Copenhagen. A young graduate student preparing to defend her thesis. An academic battle over the question of whether birds are really descended from dinosaurs. Not a promising background for a suspense novel. But leave it to those Scandinavians. S. J. Gazan is able to turn this staid setting into a creepy, atmospheric stage where one of the most unusual methods of murder ever devised by a writer is implemented in The Dinosaur Feather (Quercus Books, translated From the Danish by Charlotte Barslund).
Anna Bella Nor is a single mother juggling her parental duties with her academic work. She is due to defend her thesis in just two weeks when Dr. Lars Helland, her adviser, is found dead in his office, his tongue severed and her thesis, covered in blood, on his lap. Despite the gruesome death scene, it appears that Helland died from natural causes, a seizure, and bit off his own tongue. It is not until the autopsy that the real cause of death is discovered, and it is far from natural. Helland was intensely disliked by his colleagues and students, to whom he was cold, distant, and rude. Thus they are all suspects. Even Professor Clive Freeman, his antagonist in the debate over the origins of birds, and a professor in Canada, may be involved, given the bizarre method used.
Soren Marhauge is the police superintendent tasked with unraveling all the academic rivalries and interpersonal intrigues that might reveal a motive (and means) for the murder. As the investigation progresses, there is another murder. This time the method is pretty straightforward, but the questions of motive and possible relationship to Helland’s murder are still complicated.
The story unfolds from three viewpoints: Anna Bella’s, Soren’s, and that of Clive Freeman, in Canada, whose efforts to prove that birds are not descended from dinosaurs have led to acrimonious debates between him and Helland in academic journals and at professional conferences. Anna Bella’s thesis is the ultimate repudiation of Clive’s theories. In rotating chapters, we begin to see the other characters and suspects from three perspectives. Each of the viewpoint characters has a complex backstory, which is slowly revealed. It isn’t long before the reader is turning pages not to find out who committed murder, but to learn more about why these three behave as they do, and what secrets they hide (or have been hidden from them). Helland is so loathsome that it is hard to care who did away with him. By the time of the second murder, we are caught up in the drama of other lives and are more concerned about the effect the death will have on them.
For a modern research facility, funded by the Danish government, the Biology Department at the University of Copenhagen seems to be physically constructed like a medieval castle. There are long, intersecting corridors where one can easily become lost. Dimly lit rooms full of bone specimens and study desks placed in hidden corners just beg for the unsuspecting heroine to be surprised by an unexpected visitor. Fortunately, Anna Bella is no fool; she is not one of those “women in peril” who investigates a dark alley at night in high heels and then wonders why she is in trouble. The building provides a creepy atmosphere, but the confrontations take place in public places. It’s just Dr. Tybjerg, living in the labyrinth to save money, and later in fear for his life, who may make you jump.
The Dinosaur Feather is suspenseful and atmospheric. The plotting is intricate; the lives of the characters intersect without relying on coincidence. The mysteries of both the murders and the personal lives of major and minor players keep the reader guessing, trying to find the truth when everyone is lying.
There are a few minor irritations for the reader. The first chapter is a dream, the relevance of which is still not apparent at the end of the book. There is a lot of explanation of the scientific arguments over birds and dinosaurs. Some of this is necessary to explain the animosity between Freeman and Helland and their acolytes, but at times it is just “way too much information.” Skip over it. The murders and the personal secrets of the characters are all resolved or revealed before the last chapter, which the author uses as an opportunity to lament the exploitation of scientific controversies by the media to gain ratings or readership. None of these are reason to avoid this book; just skip the first and last chapter and any paragraph that has Latin (which is easily spotted by the italics).
The unnerving atmosphere, the complex characters with secrets to hide, and the deftly handled, multifaceted plot make this book well worth the reader’s time.