The Arc of the Swallow (Søren Marhauge #2), by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Eight stars

Sissel-Jo Gazan is back with another dark Scandinavian crime thriller sure to pique the interest of her fans and curious readers alike. Using her individual flavour, Gazan infuses a strong scientific aspect into the crime and the overall narrative, while not bogging the story down in either regard. Early in the narrative, the reader learns that the University of Copenhagen is abuzz when Immunology Professor Kristian Storm is found dead in his office, having apparently hanged himself. His most promising graduate student and research assistant, Marie Skov, is devastated and cannot fathom why he would take such drastic measures. Skov is, herself, dealing with a recent battle with breast cancer and the death of her mother, two significant events that weave their way through the story. After significant backstory, the reader better understands that Storm and Skov had been hard at work on some immunology research that had been highly controversial, in which they posit that the vaccines being given to African children have significant side effects and/or immunological deficiencies that can be attributed to higher death rates among the population, specifically in Guinea-Bissau. Additionally, someone in the highly-competitive research community flagged the research to a Danish scientific disciplinary board for review and potential sanctions, which was the basis for Skov’s dissertation. Meanwhile, the reader is reintroduced to Søren Marhauge, now a Deputy Chief Superintendent on Copenhagen’s Police Force. Tired of the bureaucratic red tape and wanting to focus on his relationship with his girlfriend and her daughter, Marhauge resigns to focus on his home life, However, when Anna (of acclaim in Gazan’s debut novel) returns home one day with news of the Storm suicide, Marhauge finds that he wants to continue sleuthing, if only a little. As the story progresses, Gazan explores more of the controversies that Storm found during his time in Guinea-Bissau and how the World Health Organization found the generalized comments highly problematic. Additionally, there is trouble brewing within Skov’s family, including a secret that had been covered up for almost three decades. Will Marhauge be able to find reason to contradict the determination that Storm took his own life in disgrace? How might Skov’s discovery of her own family’s drama shape the way she moves forward? Gazan seeks to address these and many other issues in her methodically well-paced story that forces the reader to pay close attention throughout. Not for the reader who loves a quick thrill ride, Gazan seeks to shake up the Scandinavian thriller genre by attracting those who are patient and pensive in equal measure. 

Gazan is a new addition to my reading list, but I can see how she might appeal to a certain type of reader. Her work is detailed, at times too much so for my still-adapting mind, and seeks to slowly develop her story and characters. While Søren Marhauge and Anna are back, their development is not as central to the story’s main plot. It is of great interest to those who liked the first novel to see just how far they have progressed together, as well as how sturdy their relationship has become. Marie Skov and her family take centre stage in this novel, becoming complex characters, each with their own backstories. With a number of strong characters pushing the narrative forward, the premise of the book is again a highly interesting, yet academic, venture. To posit that vaccinations used on the African continent might prove more harmful than helpful is highly scandalous, at a time when such a great scientific breakthrough seems to have revolutionized pandemics. However, with large pharmaceutical companies making millions off the production of these serums, it is no wonder that Kristian Storm could be vilified for his hypothesis. Gazan pulls the reader throughout the discussion and tries to explain it in such a way that the story is not lost on the scientific amateur (among whom I could myself). She balances it well but does not skimp on the blunt conversations in the field, which educates the reader in a persuasive manner. There is much to be said of Gazan, who differs greatly from her Scandinavian counterparts, in this second novel. Her storytelling is superior and her ability to paint a dark story while not deterring readers is worth mention as well.

Kudos, Madam Gazan for showing that you are not a one-hit wonder. I hope you will keep writing and dazzling fans with your unique style and approach to non-English thrillers, whose translation still pack a significant punch.

The Dinosaur Feather (Søren Marhauge #1), by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Eight stars

Having received much praise when it was released in 2013, I was pleased to explore Sissel-Jo Gazan’s debut novel, balancing that Scandinavian noir mystery with a strong science component to keep the reader guessing throughout. The origins of birds is apparently a hotly-debated topic in that ivory tower known as paleo-ornithology. Could it be possible that birds were once dinosaurs? Even more controversially, could dinosaurs actually have had feathers? A great deal of it comes down to evolution and a strong understanding of physiology and osteology, at least that is the argument embedded within Gazan’s novel. Graduate student Anna Bella Nor is only a few weeks away from defending her thesis on the topic of avian evolution and has been able to add her own spin to the academic discussion. Her advisor, Lars Helland, is a strong proponent of the feathered dinosaur and encourages Nor to add some definitive proof in her work. After Helland is found dead in his office, his severed tongue sitting on his shirtfront, questions surface as to what might have happened, particularly as Nor’s bloodstained thesis rests on his lap. Could this have been a severe seizure or was there something more sinister at play? Police Superintendent Søren Marhauge is assigned to investigate, discovering some interesting stories emerging from the Biology Department at Copenhagen University. Upon closer inspection, Dr. Helland appears to have been purposefully infected with a rare parasite long before his death, something that only an expert might be able to obtain. While she is somewhat troubled by the death, Anna Bella sees the clock ticking on her degree and pushes to have a thesis defence, even with the pall of the recent murder overshadowing the university. When her friend and fellow graduate is found murdered, Anna Bella cannot help but wonder if there is something tied to her in this string of murders. With Dr. Helland’s greatest academic nemesis in Denmark for a conference, some wonder if he could be behind these murders, in an attempt to wipe-out the feathered dinosaur theory. Meanwhile both Anna Bella and Superintendent Marhauge have personal struggles they are battling, which may cloud the investigation and distract them from finding the killer. A highly complex crime thriller, Gazan weaves a story and layers it with much character development. Not for those looking to breeze through a novel or play a quick whodunit!

Gazan is to be applauded for developing such a deep piece of work in her first published novel. I can see where the accolades have come, as there are genuinely areas that pull on the darkest of Scandinavian crime thrillers and a much more fleshed-out set of characters. It is worth beginning with the characters that find themselves filling the narrative, for Gazan spends so much time honing their every aspect. While I love a good backstory for my protagonists, I think Gazan may have gone a little too far, using some of the opening chapters to build massive clay statues to present Anna Bella Nor and Søren Marhauge, down to each wrinkle on their respective foreheads. During the opening chapters I had a serious debate as to whether I ought to continue with the novel, hoping for crime but all I got was family drama and angst, with little mention of dinosaurs or murders. However, it was as though Gazan needed to show off her characters in their ‘other lives’ before pushing them onto centre stage and allowing the criminal elements to seep into the narrative. From there, the slow and methodical mystery covers the novel, like a dense fog, and the reader becomes stuck in the middle, though the progress is still much less animated than what might be expected in ‘North American/British’ thrillers. The reader receives breadcrumbs, but must also wrestle with the backstories that become front and centre. While I am no expert of Scandinavian thrillers, I have read a number and even this one seemed slow to advance. The plot is sound and well-documented, if slow to flourish. The reader is left to wonder who and why throughout, given numerous suspects based on different angles one might approach. Dr. Helland was certainly not the most liked person in the world, but were those who disliked him that sinister as to kill him with parasites? Finally, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the extensive use of science within the novel. Gazan’s background in biology shines through and she does not hold back, either with the area of discussion (disagreement) or the technical language. The narration is riddled with highly academic portions, surely to fuel a debate for those readers who can understand the topic at hand. While I did not find myself drowning in technical terms or academic tennis, it is surely not for the reader seeking to skim the surface of a number of topics, as there is significant scientific flavour to the story. I can see many people shying away already. That said, it is well presented and challenges the mind and brain synapses. 

Kudos, Madam Gazan for a wonderfully crafted novel that pushed me to attempt a better understanding of science and the art of the Scandinavian dark crime thriller. I may have to return to see what else you have planned for Søren Marhauge in the near future.

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