|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on August 28, 2016 at 8:40 PM|
#5: Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. This great novel is #5 on my list and possibly #1 on my later list of "Top Mysteries that were betrayed by terrible adaptation." Among the many sins of the 1997 adaptation was the change of the ending so that Gabriel Byrne's character, who in the book is Smilla's lover but betrays Smilla and turns out to have been in league with the villains all along, in the movie turns out to be an undercover agent for the Danish authorities who dispatches most of the villains, thus making the movie Smilla a near spectator to her own mystery. The Smilla of the book is one fiierce character, angry and sneaky and righteous, and while her lover in the book assists in an important way when he regrets his betrayal, she does most of the work and the resolution of the mystery has everything to do with her uncanny familiarity with snow. Smilla is half Inuit and half Danish, and the book deepens and ennobles the mystery with convincing insights into the viewpoint of someone straddling these two cultures. While there are many exciting mystery series in 2016 with female detectives, there were far fewer in 1997 and Smilla did not deserve to be relegated.
The other huge sin of the movie is that, apparently believing that readers will be upset if the central driver of the mysterious crimes is completely unsignalled until halfway through the book, adds a scene at the beginning that hints at the central mystery. I don't need to spoil this element (if you have not seen the movie) so I'm not going to, but when I reached that point of the book, I was certainly shocked by the completely unanticpated plot twist, but I enjoyed the surprise immensely. Reading this, I realized the predictable pattern that the great majority of mysteries fall into, where there is an implicit formula of how many precursors must be provided before the central reveal. SSOS is the prime example of what I would term a "vista mystery." The majority of mysteries are "puzzle mysteries" - all the important clues are in your hands early on, and the author dares you to assemble them before her detective. Most, if not all, Agatha Christies are of this nature, but some other great representatives are In the Heat of the Night and The Big Sleep. In a vista mystery, the central driver of the crimes is not even visible or conceivable by the reader until late in the game. The genuis of the detective is not to assemble pieces to which the reader also has access, but to move herself or himself to a new situation (sometimes even a new physical location) from which he or she finally has a view of the central driver. An early example of this that I had to leave off my Top 20 is A Study in Scarlet - there are basically no cliues at all in the first half of the book by which the reader could guess that the murder was revenge for evil doings in Utah.
In SSOS, Smilla gets involved to find justice for a young Inuit boy who has died after falling off a roof - Smilla believes it is murder but no one believes Smilla. Burning nearly every bridge in her normal life, Smilla burns nearly every bridge to learn that the foul doings have something to do with a mysterious Arctic expedition planned by an eccentric Danish millionaire. She has no business being on the expedition, but she puts herself in terrible danger to join it anyway, and from there she eventually can see the cause of all the crimes and injustices despite murderous attempts to stop her.
SSOS also has one of the greatest ambiguous endings that I have every read. I'm sure the resemblances to the ending of Frankenstein are not a coincidence....
Categories: Vladimir's Top 20 Mysteries