Perhaps because of all the praise heaped on this book, I found The Dinosaur Feather to be one of the more disappointing murder mysteries I’ve read in a while. In a nutshell, the plot is centered on a furious and long-running cross-Atlantic brawl between two respected paleontologists over whether birds evolved from dinosaurs or are their own separate species (something which has been definitively resolved since, which in my view takes the wind a little bit out of the author’s sails). The strange and very gross murder of one of the two primary antagonists—a Dr. Lars Helland at the Biology Department of the University of Copenhagen—brings onto the scene the brilliant young police detective Soren Marhauge, who is quickly frustrated by the unique paucity of evidence in the case.
Soren crosses paths with Anna Bella Nor, a single mom and severely stressed-out doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen whose dissertation defense on avian paleontology in just two weeks is threatened by the death of her advisor/examiner Dr. Helland, whom she had loathed. Detective Soren is (inexplicably)attracted to Anna Bella, who is both a suspect in the murder and one serious ball of rage whose mistreatment of her toddler, her parents, her friends, Soren, and everyone around her makes her an instantly unlikeable character, but who the author nonetheless intends as her heroine.
Soren brings his own hefty emotional baggage to a drama already rife with marital angst, parental lies, rage, jealousy, S&M, pedophilia, blackmail, and lots more. There is also lots of science here, which at first intrigued and drew me in, but which later turned out to be an unnecessarily detailed slog that seriously slowed down the plot and served more to highlight the author’s research skills than literary ones.
What the author does is take the half-dozen or more primary characters in the book, and give them such elaborate and dark backstories that I felt like I was drowning in dysfunction. Soren, for example, lost his parents in childhood, commits infidelity, buries his unacknowledged child, alienates his partner, and his misery is palpable but doesn’t make up for the fact that he isn’t the one to actually solve the core mystery of the story. Anna Bella has questions about her past which in the end don’t add up to a hill of beans and which definitely don’t excuse her ugly behavior throughout the book, but the reader is so inundated with details of her “mystery” that we clearly are supposed to care. The surviving paleontologist in the scientific dispute gets a virtual novel of his own, a plot line which keeps reappearing throughout the book and yet which adds virtually nothing to the murder mystery but which made me feel like I needed a shower every time he surfaced in the story. I could go on, but why?
Although author Gazan gives us both an interesting scientific premise and a novel new murder weapon to contemplate, I found the interminable scientific lectures, the often irrelevant backstories, and the typically jaundiced Scandinavian view of humanity unappealing. At least two extremely weird and pathetic characters surface from out of the blue and are thrust late into the story purely in order to help the author solve her murders. A cheap trick, in my opinion, and so contrived and shoddily composed that I may be stretching it in giving this mysteriously acclaimed book a 3-star rating.