07 January 2015

The Frozen Dead by Bernard Minier

Book Description: Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a small town nestled in the French Pyrenees. The kind of place where winters are harsh and unforgiving and where nothing ever happens.
Until the winter morning when a group of workers discover the headless, flayed body of a horse, hanging suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff. On the same day the gruesome discovery takes place, Diane Berg, a young psychiatrist, starts her first job at a high-security asylum for the criminally insane, just a few miles away. She is baffled by the slightly unorthodox methods the asylum’s director uses, and then greatly alarmed when she realizes that drugs are disappearing from within the fortified institution while someone seems to be slipping out at night. Commandant Martin Servaz, a charismatic city cop from nearby Toulouse fond of quoting Latin, can’t believe he has been called out over the death of an animal. But there’s something disturbing about this crime that he can’t ignore. Then DNA from one of the most notorious inmates of the asylum, a highly intelligent former prosecutor, accused of killing and raping several women, is found on the horse carcass . . . and a few days later the first human murder takes place. A dark story of madness and revenge seems to be unfolding. Servaz and his colleague, the mysterious Irene Ziegler, must use all their skill to solve the terrifying mystery and best one of the most fiendish and clever opponents they could ever imagine.

If you're looking for a fast-paced thriller, 'The Frozen Dead' will not deliver.  The story is told slowly, deliberately, each character and plot twist introduced with clear intention.  Set in the Pyrenees mountains in the dead of winter, the action takes place in a dark and icy landscape so vividly described that I found myself reading while curled under a blanket, even though I wasn't cold.  Minier's writing is sparse yet precise, full of chilling attention to detail.  The reader is alternately transported to the grim halls of the Wargnier Psychiatric Institute, the sweeping mountain vistas of Southern France, and the bizarre luxury of a mega-millionaire's estate, with the dogged police commandant Martin Servaz serving as an unwilling tour guide.

Minier keeps the genre cliches to a minimum, so the story feels fresh and unlike any other 'murder mystery' I've read; I was legitimately surprised by certain turns in the plot.  Reading this book took a little more work than another book might - Minier demands active engagement on the part of the reader.  That said, I really enjoyed 'The Frozen Dead', and highly recommend it - 4 stars.