S.J. Gazan: The Dinosaur Feather

The Dinosaur FeatherThis is an original and captivating novel.  Set in Copenhagen on the campus of the University of Copenhagen, the politics swirling through academe are apparently brutal to the point of fatality.  The central character, Anna Bella Nor, would probably get along well with Lisbeth Salander in terms of both brains and anger.  Unlike Lisbeth, she’s more anchored to the world – she has parents, a toddler, an ex, friends, and she’s juggling the planned defense of her PhD thesis in biology while taking care of her daughter and, it turns out, helping to solve the murders of some colleagues.

The central academic question at the heart of the novel is whether birds are dinosaurs or if dinosaurs and birds are two distinct species.  Anna’s direct supervisor has conducted an almost lifelong fight to the death on the matter with a Canadian ornithologist, Clive Freeman, who insists the two are not related and has the bestseller to prove it.  Anna’s supervisor, Dr. Helland, convinces her to take apart Freeman’s thesis as her dissertation subject.

Gazan manages to make this academic infighting completely fascinating, and as Anna struggles with her thesis the lives of the two men are examined, as is Anna’s.  All of them are damaged souls in one way or another.  Complicating matters is the early in the story death of Dr. Helland; his manner of death is puzzling, gruesome, and entirely (I certainly hope) original.  That’s the kickoff point for a series of events that culminate in several other deaths.

The policeman in charge of the case is referred to mentally by Anna as the “world’s most irritating detective”, but in fact he seems good at his job.  As it turns out he has his own tormented backstory and he’s strangely drawn to Anna, who he needs to help explain the labyrinthine academic setting and politics.  While his partner thinks of Anna as “hard work,” Soren, the detective in charge, and Anna have a strange connection that helps to ultimately solve the case.

As Gazan tells her story, she weaves in the backstories of all the characters, all memorable, all heartbreaking to one degree or another.  In this she reminded me of Elizabeth George, though she gets more quickly to the point.  However, the keen psychological dissection is present in the writing of both women.

I loved the academic setting, which might be any university, I think; I loved all the characters, and while I was sometimes annoyed by Anna, I was captivated by her too.  I could see why so many people stood by her.  This is also a kick-ass story, no two ways about it.  The minute you pick this book up, you probably won’t be able to stop reading.  I have a weakness for The Big Bang Theory, but I even turned that off to read this book instead.  This is a big bang for your reading buck.