Smilla Jasperson, an independent woman, returns to her Copenhagen apartment building one afternoon to find that her seven-year-old friend Isaiah has died in a fall from the roof of an adjacent warehouse. The police dismiss the death as an accident, since the boy’s footprints are the only Ones on the roof, but Smilla knows that the boy had a paralyzing fear of heights. She tries to get the police to look more deeply into Isaiah’s death, but it quickly becomes clear that someone wants the investigation ended, and Smilla is warned not to pry any further,
This warning and new, unexplained circumstances surrounding Isaiah and his alcoholic mother lead Smilla to press forward. She finds that they have been living well on a large pension from the company that employed Isaiah’s father when he was killed on an expedition to Greenland. She finds an ally in Peter Fojl, whom she calls the mechanic, a man who had also befriended Isaiah; where Smilla had provided the boy with education, reading to him from Euclid’s Elements and other adult texts and sometimes feeding him, the mechanic had given him training in manual arts. Smilla finds quickly that the autopsy that declared Isaiah the victim of an accident had been performed by a doctor named Johannes Loyen, and that the pension that allowed Isaiah’s mother to feed her alcoholic habit came from the Cryolite Corporation, which has extensive mining interests in Greenland, native home to Smilla and Isaiah. Loyen, she finds, had been involved in two mysterious expeditions to the west coast of Greenland under the aegis of the Cryolite Corporation. In his autopsy report, he failed to note that a muscle sample was taken from Isaiah’s body after the boy was dead.
With the help of the former auditor of the Cryolite Corporation, a religious woman named Elsa Lubing, Smilla finds that the corporation’s expeditions involved a number of people who had at one time or another spent time in the Far East, where they were apparently involved in the drug trade. She locates Andreas Fine Licht, an Inuit who has a doctorate in linguistics and is now the curator of the Arctic Museum, located on a refitted sailing ship in Copenhagen’s harbor. Licht, who had been on the earlier trips, provides Smilla with more information, but before revealing very much he is killed. Smilla nearly dies in the fire that destroys the museum; she must swim through icy waters to save her life.
Smilla is helped in her search for information by an honest medical examiner named Lagermarn, by Ravn, a prosecutor’s investigator who has been told to lay off the case, and by her father, Dr. Moritz Jaspersen, who gives her money reluctantly but also provides her with information about others in the medical profession. Through Birgo Lander, shipping broker and part owner of a casino, she meets Captain Sigmund Lukas, who is about to take a ship to an unknown destination. Lukas agrees to hire her as a stewardess for the trip. Waiting for the sailing date, she is warned by Ravn that the police are looking for her, and she takes refuge at her father’s house. There she is betrayed by her father’s young lover, Benja, a twenty-two-year-old ballerina who is jealous of Smilla and tells the police where she is. Her father spirits her away, and Lander gets her aboard the Kronos just before it sails. No one, not even Captain Lukas, knows the ship’s destination.
The Kronos has been reinforced structurally to make it seaworthy in icy seas, and Smilla becomes convinced that she is right in thinking that the ship is headed for Greenland. As the ship plows through the North Sea and then the North Atlantic, she finds more and more oddities on board. The hold has been enlarged and strengthened, and has a highly expensive heating and cooling system. The crew seems to consist mainly of cutthroats, including Verlaine, the bosun, the deck hands, and two Asian women, although Smilla finds a reluctant ally in the deck hand Bernard Jakkelsen, a heroin addict who, like the captain and most of the crew, suspects that she is a police agent. Three mysterious passengers are hidden from Smilla for a while. Eventually she identifies two of them; the third proves to be Torkk, leader of the expedition, a man of uncanny and formidable power and authority.
While the Kronos is still on the way to...