Books: More snow falling on readers
After Miss Smilla came a storm of icy chillers. Now the genre's gone green, says Jane Jakeman
Saturday 15 November 1997
by Robin White
Michael Joseph, pounds 9.99
Under the Snow
by Kerstin Ekman (directed by Joan Tate)
Vintage, pounds 5.99
The temperatures are going barmy," cried the Central TV forecaster recently, waving his arms in front of a flurry of isobars. Not only on the telly. Ecological preoccupations loom large in the literary world and these two books are the latest in a blizzard of crime novels with an Arctic setting. This onslaught began with Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Panther), but thriller writers have always appreciated the snowstorm. The suspects cut off from the outside world, and the conveniently impressionable white blanket surrounding the country house, supplied classic ingredients of the traditional detective story. In G K Chesterton's tale The Dagger with Wings, Father Brown was confronted by the ultimate puzzle of a body surrounded by snow - and no footprints!
This 1930s theme was trendily reworked for, like the smoking gun, marks in the snow came into the category of signs as classified by structuralist critics. Clues were renamed Natural Traces. This concept handily combined semiotics with detection, as in Eco's The Name of the Rose. A more hard- boiled version of the genre offered - literally - Cold-War spy thrillers, in which goodies and baddies slugged it out on the ice.
The snow mystery has now taken on new layers of meaning. Most obviously, it lends itself to moral symbolism. Keith Heller's poetic novel Snow on the Moon (Headline) allowed a subtle meaning to emerge from the chilly surroundings and cold hearts greeting a small Jewish boy in postwar Spain, and David Guterman's Snow Falling on Cedars (Bloomsbury) similarly set an analysis of human evil, this time in the Pacific, against a backdrop of the pure white stuff.
Now there's a further shift which touches on a raw contemporary nerve: the sense of some impending, terrible ecological disaster. The championship of minorities such as Inuits, Lapps and Greenlanders is a feature of this new generation of eco-conscious snow thrillers. The threat to these peoples and the wilderness was among the themes that found a devoted following for Miss Smilla, which starts off with conventional footprints and becomes an indictment of modern science.
Of these two new novels, Robin White's chucks in just about everything you associate with permafrost: Russkies against Yanks, oil, labour-camps, and ecological concerns about saving the Siberian tigers. Did Michael Joseph just hurry a snow-novel into their list? It's the author's first book, so they should have given him some advice about carving a real plot out of all this muddle.
In skilful hands, though, the Arctic setting is no rent-a-floe dumping ground. It is a special territory, vulnerable and deceptive, a vast white Other where isolated societies are liable to break down into individual hatreds. Kerstin Ekman's Under the Snow starts as a classic thriller translated to the Arctic, where Constable Torsson investigates a death in a remote Lapland community. The detective dons his skis to view the body, the dog that barks in the night is an elk-hound, but we soon go beyond these almost jokey nods to convention as Ekman's tense details convey the chill of frozen earth, the beauty of cloudberries and green water, the sunlight of the Arctic summer. The book becomes an exploration of the survival of traditional values, of shamanistic sacrifice, in a lean, eerie mystery even tauter than its atmospheric predecessor, Blackwater.
Ekman has published 17 novels in Sweden, but only these two have appeared in English. Like all good snow writers, she provides the final, foetal attraction: of curling up with a good book as the storm rages outside. This is the paradoxical safety promised by the archetypes of the genre, the Norse sagas, though it may be too easy for us in temperate zones to romanticise the icy settings. I can't quite forget Hersil Ketil Flatnose's remark on Iceland: "To that place of fish shall I never come in my old age."
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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