This is my review of The Frozen Dead (Commandant Servaz) by Bernard Minier.
An extraordinary and gruesome sight awaits the unsuspecting team of Swiss hydro-electric power workers as they exit from their cable car onto an exposed mountainside platform. As further murders occur, suspicion falls on the nearby Wargnier Psychiatric Institute which incarcerates some of the most notorious criminally insane prisoners in Europe, not least the cunning psychopath Julian Hirtmann. Yet, when Commandant Servaz visits the grim Institute with his colleagues the security seems too tight for anyone to escape, let alone return between crimes. Meanwhile, the emotionally vulnerable young psychologist Diane Berg, who seems quite unsuited to her temporary post at the Institute, begins to collect disturbing evidence which places her in danger but which she has a tantalising reluctance to share with the police.
In this debut thriller which made his name in France, Bernard Minier is good at conveying a sense of the oppressive, sinister beauty of remote Swiss valleys under the pressure of unrelenting snow blizzards with at least one unknown killer on the loose. In a page-turning plot, well-controlled despite its many twists, he is good at creating a sense of suspense and tension, although too often a dramatic scene comes to nothing. One could argue this is realistic, except that many aspects of the intrigue are very far-fetched.
Some of the characters are quite well-developed, but they are in the main clichéd, with Servaz a likeable but somewhat formulaic sleuth. He has the usual dysfunctional family life, a wife driven away by his over-dedication to work, apparent appeal to beautiful women without having to make any effort, and an incongruous erudite streak in his penchant for voicing Latin quotations with the Classics as light reading. His apparent past success in solving crimes is belied by an apparent lack of the necessary attributes to make an effective cop: he is frightened of heights and fast speeds, hopeless at target practice, and makes elementary errors under pressure like forgetting his firearm when vital, at least for self-protection. For one in some ways so lacking in physical courage, it is odd that he is so often prepared to embark on dangerous situations without back-up.
Perhaps because of his own past career as a customs official, Minier displays a love of detail which can prove quite tedious, even boring, making the novel perhaps a couple of hundred pages too long. I enjoyed reading this in French as a good source of vocabulary-building, but would have found it hard to sustain my interest in the English version. I agree with reviewers who found it in need of pruning.
Although Minier has left at least two strands to follow up in a sequel, these are unlikely to draw me to read more by an author who seems to favour the clichéd macabre, and quantity over quality. I have removed a star for the English version, since, stripped of the original French, the book's shortcomings are likely to be more apparent.