Skulls, feathers, claws and winged flight—all are part of an ongoing scientific controversy about the evolution of birds that winds through the pages of Danish author S.J. Gazan’s absorbing debut thriller, The Dinosaur Feather. When the bones of this contentious argument get mixed up with the time-honored academic battles for tenure and research grants, it all leads to murder.
Postgraduate biology student Anna Bella Nor is ready to defend her Ph.D. thesis, one she hopes will add significantly to the argument in the science community about whether contemporary birds evolved from dinosaurs. But her thesis supervisor is found dead with a copy of Anna’s dissertation in his lap, while her second advisor, a brilliant but eccentric specialist at a Copenhagen museum, has taken to hiding from the world in his dark office full of fossils and avian bones.
The murder, committed by means of an ugly parasitic infection that took months to develop, introduces a lengthy timeline of premeditation and sends in police superintendent Søren Marhauge, who sets out to penetrate this academic world full of jealousies and murderous intent. Dubbed by Anna as the “World’s Most Irritating Detective,” he haunts the sacrosanct halls of academe, widening his search to include experts in parasitology. Another death, this time one of Anna’s young colleagues, throws her into a tailspin—and it seems she may be in danger as well, after neighbors report a strange man lurking near her apartment.
The Dinosaur Feather contains lengthy excursions into the characters’ backstories. In some books these flashbacks might make an unwelcome break in the action, but here the earlier frames provide substance and connections to bring this compelling story to life. Each character’s intriguing history rounds out the whole, and they combine for a spirited and satisfying conclusion.
Occasional odd cadences of language and mood are a reminder to readers that the book is translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund. Far from being a distraction, however, the sometimes-singular turns of phrase provide a distinctive slant that enhances readers' appreciation of the story—and make the reader refreshingly aware that the author created all this in a different language. The Dinosaur Feather was named the Danish Crime Novel of the Decade, and it seems sure to attract rave notices here.