Having long anticipated The Arc Of The Swallow, I delved into its pages in search of old companions, remembering my late mother’s observation on the power of the strong novel to turn characters into readers’ friends.
Given the quality of Dinosaur Feather, described on publication by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation as "the Danish Crime Novel of the Decade", the bar was set pretty high for whatever was next in line. The Arc of The Swallow showed, unfortunately, just how high and ultimately impassable this time around. A case of the Swallow not being able to soar and comfortably cruise at the same literary heights as the Dinosaur, winged or not.
In Swallow the reader finds Sissel-Jo Gazan shifting the narratorial terra firma towards the feet of new characters. The main players from the debut novel are still there but are no longer as central, displaced to some degree by others, regrettably not as captivating. As with Dinosaur Feather a murder investigation focusing on Copenhagen University runs parallel with family intrigue. This time the gelling is not done with the same aplomb. The disputes of the seriously maladroit Skov family are stretched beyond what the attentive reader can endure.
Marie Skov takes the place of Anna Bella Nor as the understudy of the murdered academic and is the moving spirit of the story. Tackling the effects of breast cancer only to find that her husband is screwing somebody else and has eventually asked for a divorce, her cross is not a light one to bear. Her choice and location of tattoo reveals much about the strength of her character.
The same day as her professor supposedly took his own life, Skov's mother did likewise. While her mother’s demise seemed a straightforward affair, Marie Skov insists that Professor Kristian Storm’s death could not have been by his own hand. He was on the cusp of victory in a long running dispute over vaccination in West Africa. Having initially been accused of manipulating his research to fraudulently claim that the vaccine was lethally ineffective, he was well on the road to vindication, and a dazzling academic future as primus inter pares in his field of immunology. The suicide theory simply did not stack up.
For Maria Skov, the type of conclusions arrived at by Professor Storm would call into existence a phalanx of dinosaur size enemies. Big Pharma would not look kindly on research that threatened profit. Maria believes that Professor Storm discovered that a DTP vaccination programme was killing too many West African children rather than saving their lives. The professor is killed to cover this up. She is aware of far too many discrepancies in the suicide theory account. Coupled with evidence of serious intimidation in Guinea Bissau, her conclusion is simple: murder.
Søren Marhauge, the lead detective from Dinosaur is experiencing tensions with Anna Bella Nor, the tenacious battler from that first novel. No longer the assured investigator who could get results with some lateral thinking, his loss of confidence is seeping into his relationship and he is now plagued with doubts, feeling the tremors as his world loses its grounding. Moreover, he has tendered his resignation as Deputy Chief Superintendent of Copenhagen’s Violent Crimes Unit, in some part the result of a conflict with a less than observant buddy, Henrik Tejsner. The new uncertainties are everywhere apart from inside his nose where his nostrils are prone to twitch at the faintest scent of a lead. While not the official investigator, investigation is what Søren does.
Even though the layers of fiction that have formed the collective memory of the Skov family are stripped way as the story unfolds, exposing hidden secrets, the dimmer switch kicks in when its travails move center stage. The plot around the vaccine is always electric and where the crime fiction enthusiast wants to be. Murder immersed in the world of science and research is what Sissel-Jo Gazan excels at and arguably is where the emphasis of her fiction should concentrate.
With the storyline becoming lured off the main track and into the chicanes of family disputes I felt tempted in a moment of impatience, to put the book down. There was a longing for the dish to serve up more of a meaty crime drama rather than leave the reader to pick through the bones of interminable family squabbles. I stuck with it out of a sense of fidelity to Dinosaur. In the end I made the right choice because the book is built around a great plot and Sissel-Jo Gazan has carved out a most promising niche in the murder market.
The Arc of the Swallow stood to benefit from a ruthless culling process that would have reduced its length by almost a third. Sissel-Jo Gazan lit the fuse but allowed it to burn too long before a detonation that should have been more audible. After such a prolonged lead-in the solution to the death at the university seemed to arrive much too quickly. The reader is thrust into post-closed case mode wondering how it happened so quickly, that there must have been something missed.
While lacking the punching power of her first novel which was a hard act to follow, The Arc of The Swallow remains a good read, with the promise of more to come from the mind of this exciting writer.
Sissel-Jo Gazan, 2014. The Arc Of The Swallow. Publisher riverrun.