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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