A six year old boy plunges to death from the rooftop of his apartment building. Police want to close the case as an accident. Miss Smilla, who lives in the same apartment complex and who has befriended the boy, doesn’t believe it was an accident. She starts her own investigation which puts her life in peril but she is not one to give up easily. How she uncovers the mystery forms the rest of the novel.
The story line above could be that of any standard issue thriller. All the tropes of the thriller genre are present here: A female protagonist, extremely talent but unable to adjust socially, a strong silent male friend, to whom the heroine is attracted to and who helps her in time of need, an evil corporation which puts profits above everything else and an evil scientist who will kill ruthlessly for his fifteen seconds of fame. It is Peter Hoeg’s sense of snow and writing style which ensure that this does not become one more disposable thriller.
The Americans are past masters when it comes to intertwining information about an exotic subject with the thriller, to make it appear more intellectual that what it actual is. Yet, a perceptible reader will recognize that the information comes from the encyclopedia and not from the author’s own experience in the subject tackled. In case of Peter Hoeg, you get a feeling that snow and ice are subjects that he knows personally; such is the clarity of his writing. It is this detail about snow that adds a lot of depth to the novel.
Peter Hoeg’s writing style works wonderfully well in this novel. There are some wonderful passages wherein the author ruminates about various aspects of life and society. Peter Hoeg also brings to fore the tensions that exist between Greenland and Denmark. The novel also briefly touches on the impact of progress on the way of living of the Inuit people. On how progress is welcomed by some as not having to look for food and on how progress takes away the ancient form of livelihood leading to disastrous consequences. Peter Hoeg writes with a deep understanding of these subjects and such is his attachment to these subjects that the receptive readers would head for Google to find out more about Denmark, Greenland and the Inuit people.
Hoeg’s writing style is also perfect to create the necessary atmosphere for the thriller. The novel is in two parts: first part taking place on snow covered land and the second part taking place in ice covered oceans. He perfectly evokes the gloomy atmosphere of the steel gray mornings, the ever present biting cold and snow that falls, sometimes softly and sometimes hard, that you feel cold while reading it. In the second part, his knowledge about ships and ice comes to the fore. A claustrophobic feeling pervades this section as the protagonist is now inside a small room in a ship. At the same time, Hoeg takes us into the vast expanse of icy waters around Greenland and gives us a master class on ice and icebergs.
On the thriller front, the book operates well within the framework of the genre. There are many adventures which keep the reader engaged. The heroine nearly gets killed in blast, is almost thrown into the sea by villains, she breaks into offices to get the material she wants, is warned off by the police, fights with a guy and explores the ship, entering places where she is prohibited to enter. All these incidents move the story forward and keep the thriller fan engaged.
It is this working within the framework that finally keeps this book within the genre and does not elevate it beyond the genre. While the writing style of Hoeg, the knowledge of ice and snow, add to make this novel different from normal thrillers, the inability to make any one of the many interesting characters more human is what keeps the novel within the genre. While the protagonist is a woman, it is quite clear that the character has been written by a man. The other characters in the novel remain representative of the genre and no one really becomes flesh and blood.
Overall I would recommend this novel to those interested in reading more than just an ordinary thriller. For others, there is always Dan Brown.