In this debut crime thriller, French novelist Bernard Minier has created a dramatic hunt for a serial killer in a snow-filled valley, deep in the Pyrenees. From its eerie opening — a cable car ride where the wind wails "like the cries of children in distress" The Frozen Dead simmers with tension.
The discovery of the headless corpse of a thoroughbred racehorse suspended from a cable car tower, sparks a police response that surprises Toulouse-based detective, Commandant Servaz, until he learns that the animal belongs to one of the world's premier businessmen, Eric Lombard. Forensic evidence links the crime to an inmate at the nearby Wargnier Institute, a fictional psychiatric hospital housing murderers who have been judged insane, and prompts a complete lock-down of the facility. A local man is found murdered only days later, dealing Servaz a new case and links between the two crimes that are not easy to parse.
Minier fully exploits his setting to create a tense and unnerving read. From the snowbound peaks of the Pyrenees to the austere world of the Institute where a young psychologist, Diane Berg, has just joined a team of staff treating some of the most dangerous serial killers in Europe, this world is chilling and unwelcoming. The natural landscape is treacherous and the weather threatening: there is constant promise of a storm, or sudden drop in temperature, and the pervasive whine of the wind. The man-made world is just as terrifying. The Institute is described as "the lair of Cyclops," but with "not just one Polyphemus deep inside that cave there are several." Moreover, although the mountains, the power station and the Institute loom ominously over the valley below, the smaller settings an abandoned holiday camp and the unfriendly town of Saint Martin are no less unsettling and dark, holding a host of secrets.
Literary, Gothic, unashamedly playing on the senses, Minier's world is dangerous and foreboding, an adult fairytale world where nothing and no one is quite what they seem. The Frozen Dead's landscape ice and mountains hint at a monstrous evil reminiscent of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and there are references to Well's The Time Machine and Stevenson's The Strange Case Of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At its center is the Wargnier Institute where the treatment and punishment of the criminally insane brings a twenty-first century sense of horror to the tale. A note of caution: Readers may find some of the more graphic descriptions of these methods disturbing. The rather creepy head of the Institute, Dr. Xavier, points out that only the "crème de la crème" of European serial killers are housed and treated in the facility.
Minier's characters play an important role in elevating his story into more than a traditional crime thriller/police procedural. Commandant Suarez, like many fictional investigators before him, is a middle-aged loner a divorcee, struggling as a parent, living on microwavable meals but he also listens to Mahler, loves Latin quotes and carries his own mental scars. Every character, is rounded, believable and enjoyable to spend time with. The story is full of all the expected, unexpected twists and revelations of the genre, but every surprise is believable and each player, good and bad, is intriguing to get to know.
That said, these elements also have the potential, at least in the early stages, of dragging the story down. With so much depth of character, setting and background detail, The Frozen Dead in the first hundred pages or so, risks leaving the reader cold. The novel takes perhaps a little longer than it should, to get going. But once the stage is fully set, and Minier has all his pieces in place, the pace is excellent, the drama every bit as riveting and the climax as nail-biting as any thriller lover could demand.
This review was originally published in September 2014, and has been updated for the September 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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