Rats. I really thought this was the year that the Scandinavian stranglehold on suspense fiction was going to be broken. As of early fall, no new Stieg Larsson, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo or Helene Tursten had surfaced to claim attention as the newest Northern Light of Noir. Just as well, I thought. All these crime stories featuring very pale, sexually progressive detectives have been getting a bit frostbitten of late, like a forgotten jar of lingonberry jam in the back of the fridge. But now an English translation of “The Dinosaur Feather” — the first mystery by Danish writer S.J. Gazan — has appeared on these shores, and without a fight, I surrendered all my critical superlatives to yet another Viking.
Simply put, “The Dinosaur Feather” is the weirdest and most ingenious new mystery I’ve read in years. I could be wrong (but I don’t think I am) when I say that Gazan disposes of one of her murder victims here by a hellish means that no other mystery writer — not even the resourceful Dame Agatha — ever dreamed up.
“The Dinosaur Feather” takes readers deep into the insular world of scientists, centered at the University of Copenhagen, who are investigating dinosaur evolution, particularly the question of how birds descended from dinosaurs. (Although a few renegade scientists insist otherwise, recent fossil discoveries in China have pretty much settled the theory that Big Bird and Barney do, in fact, share the same gory family tree.)
An exhausted single mother and graduate student named Anna Bella Nor is hard at work in the university’s creepy Institute of Biology when she hears screams coming from the office of her faculty supervisor. When Anna reaches his door, she discovers that someone has rendered Dr. Lars Helland extinct. Lying on his lap is Anna’s dissertation, dotted with blood. Lying on his chest is the source of the blood: Dr. Helland’s tongue, the far end of which looks like “a severed, bloody limb, elongated and shredded like a prepared tenderloin.” Given that everyone at the Institute of Biology knew that Anna “loathed” her eccentric supervisor, it looks as if she now has bigger troubles to contend with than the flat academic job market.
This is just the tip (akin to a fragment from an apatosaurus’s little toe) of Gazan’s complex — and consistently engrossing — plot. Readers are treated to dark and stormy back stories about scientific rivalries, sexual yearning and family secrets that have warped the lives of most of the main characters. Soren Marhauge, the police investigator assigned to the case, is one of those loner detectives whose only life is his work. Soren prides himself on his intellectual ability to “knit backward,” but he finds Helland’s murder to be a stumper. (And, you don’t want to know what Soren discovers about that hard pustule in the dead man’s eye. You really don’t.)
When sour-tempered Anna silently nicknames Soren “The World’s Most Irritating Detective,” we readers have reason to hope that sparks will fly. But first, Soren needs to “knit backward” through hatreds as labyrinthine as the hallways running through that echoing Institute of Biology. He also must spend time bravely interrogating academics. Here’s his impression of a biologist named Johannes Trojborg:
“Soren had met many oddballs in his time, people whose head and body decorations were so extreme that you could barely make out the naked person underneath them. Johannes, however, was one of the most peculiar creatures Soren had ever seen. His transparency reminded Soren of those little white creatures you find under paving stones. Johannes’s hands were long, slender and silken, his skin stretched tight and pale across his face and he stooped. Only his red hair and intelligent eyes contradicted Soren’s impression of being in the presence of something stale and musty.”
A few years after it was first published in Denmark in 2008, “The Dinosaur Feather” was anointed the “Danish Crime Novel of the Decade” by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. The Danish ice floe may not be as crowded with crime fiction as the Swedish or Norwegian drifts, but it will be obvious to readers why Gazan’s novel would be the leader of almost any pack. Moody and intricate, “The Dinosaur Feather” is every bit as unforgettable as its creepy title.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
THE DINOSAUR FEATHER
By S.J. Gazan
Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund
Quercus. 431 pp. $24.95