THE DINOSAUR FEATHER - Sissel-Jo Gazan
January is often a very good reading month for some reason. That alone doesn't make a lot of sense - it's normally hot enough to melt the tin on the roof, which isn't conducive to concentration. Making THE DINOSAUR FEATHER look like a rather risky choice. At 535 pages it was way too big for any struggle with concentration, and after starting the book and finding myself deep in discussions on paleo-ornithology and not a lot of "crime action", I was feeling somewhat sceptical to say the least. Add to that a central character who is just a little inclined to be whingy, very prickly, with more than a hefty dose of self-entitlement and I really did question my sanity for starting this book off at this time of the year.
But there can be something appealing about the idea of a character being somewhat unpleasant, as long as there is a very realistic feel to the portrayal. Leaving aside a slight personal tendency to sympathise with prickly, Anna Bella Nor is extremely realistic. Complicated, with a messy personal life, she's completely focused on the completion of her degree to the detriment of many of her personal relationships. Not that her relationship with her divorced parents ever seems to have been plain sailing. Her dislike and antagonism for her supervisor - Professor Lars Helland - isn't hidden, even when his sudden and very odd death becomes the subject of a police investigation. In contrast to Anna, her colleague Johannes is considerably more placid, accepting and caring. He's got a lot more reasons for life to disappoint than Anna, yet he's always able to see the good side in the people around them. Superintendent Søren Marhauge is also a man with a complicated personal life, full of regret and loss, yet he is also more like Johannes in outlook, if not lifestyle - he also finds himself dangerously fascinated by Anna Bella.
Looking at that summary it would be very easy to assume that this is yet another book in which the women are volatile and complicated and the men all tolerant and straightforward. Goodness knows I've been dragged down that path a bit recently. Whilst there is a lot of that classification going on, this author has managed to create a level of reality to these people that doesn't exaggerate the roles or overplay that comparison. Anna Bella is a tricky woman to deal with (as is her mother), but there are also kind, controlled women around them, and not everything in Anna Bella is bad, or wrong, or off kilter. The men may seem controlled, kind and wise, but they are all hiding secrets and behaviour which is less than perfect. It's those aspects of the characters that keeps them from feeling like roles have been assigned for the purposes of creating a reaction, and more like people who could very well be the reader, or people the reader knows.
Be warned though, it takes quite a while for the "crime" to happen in this book, possibly because there are all these complicated and rather fraught personal backgrounds and relationships. There's a lot of stuff that's not directly related to the crime itself going on, and whilst some of that did get a little repetitive at points, and there was just a slight inclination to tell, rather than show; mostly the plot, the story and all it's elements filled the 535 pages pretty successfully. Having said that, you're going to have to find the world of the evolution of birds and their relationship to dinosaurs interesting because at some points in the book you'll be pulled well into the discussion. Not, I'd hasten to say, in an overly scientific or learned manner, all of the information was quite readable, and personally I found it quite fascinating. Perhaps because it was compelling it didn't always feel like too much of a distraction or deviation from the crime itself.
The cause and resolution of the crime, getting back to the point of crime fiction after all, was nicely constructed, and despite one of the most bizarre methods of killing I've come across in a long while, perfectly feasible in the world in which it was placed. As a pure puzzle solver there were clues along the way for the reader to work with, and whilst it does take a while to get to the point where the resolution of the crime starts to be drawn out, I doubt it will come as a massive surprise to most. What probably appealed to this reader most of all about THE DINOSAUR FEATHER was the journey, and the unusual setting and environment in which the story is conducted. Regardless of what made the book work, it was a real surprise to find that this book was the one that's kept my perfect strike rate of at least one favourite book of the year coming in the first month of the year.
Biology graduate Anna Bella Nor is just two weeks away from defending her thesis on the origin of birds when her supervisor Lars Helland is found dead in his office, his severed tongue lying on his bloodied shirtfront, a copy of her thesis lying in his lap.
Police Superintendent Søren Marhauge is assigned to unravel what appears to be a multitude of intrigues in the Biology Department of Copenhagen University. Helland had been deliberately infected with a rare parasite that only an expert in the field would have access to. But when Anna Bella's fellow graduate and close friend is also killed, the murders seem to be linked not only to the university but also to Anna herself. As Marhauge investigates he comes up against the vicious competition for academic success, dark secrets from the past - all against the fabulous backdrop of palaeontology's age-old mysteries.