The Frozen Dead (Commandant Martin Servaz #1), by Bernard Minier

Eight stars
In my attempt to explore more dark mysteries translated from another language, I stumbled upon French author, Bernard Minier. Bringing a new meaning to the word ‘noir mystery’, Minier uses his debut novel to delve into the depths of despair, stereotypical for literary pieces emanating from the author’s homeland. When a body is discovered dangling from a cliff, Commandant Martin Servaz is called to the scene. Much to his dismay, the body is that of a decapitated horse. Sure that someone has played a macabre joke, Servaz tries to remove himself from the case, feeling that his skills could be better used elsewhere. Early investigation shows that DNA evidence of Julian Hirtmann accompanies the horse’s corpse, which proves to be even more interesting, in that he is a Swiss serial killer and locked down in the mental asylum in a nearby French community. Servaz is intrigued and finds himself newly committed to the case, curious how a super-max facility could be porous enough to have one of their most notorious patients slipping out. On the same day as the horse is discovered, Diane Berg arrives to take up employment at the asylum. A Swiss psychologist by trade, Berg learns much about the facility and their less than mainstream means of treating patients. Non-anesthetized electro-shock therapy, graphic virtual reality with body probes, and countless medicines no longer used in the treatment of psychiatric patients all find themselves used on a daily basis, with a director who prides himself on these unorthodox measures. Back on the outside, Servaz is called to the scene of another body, this time a man who is found hanging under a bridge. He, too, is found to have Hirtmann’s DNA, however, there appears to be no tie between the patient and the reclusive chemist. Servaz is baffled, particularly when he arrives at the asylum and cannot find a means by which anyone would be able to escape or to return unnoticed. When Servaz learns that the community also lived through a number of teen suicides, all by hanging, he wonders how much more the locals can take. Further probing can only help to open old wounds and forces Servaz to wonder if he is doing so more out of curiosity than necessity. Servaz finds himself distracted as well by his daughter, who is beginning to exhibit odd behaviours, so much so that he has her tailed. What he discovers shocks him a little, but that proves to help his case, if only a little. Berg continues to probe inside the asylum, trying to answer her own questions, but her inquisitiveness might be unknowingly acting as a secondary investigator for this truly baffling case. A wonderfully dark piece that pulls the reader into corners of the story that are anything but pleasant, Minier exemplifies that the language barrier does not lessen the impact of this thriller. Perfect for those who enjoy macabre pieces with a protagonist who is anything but uplifting.
While no expert, I have read a number of mysteries whose original publication language is not English. I find them scintillating and require the reader to play a much more active role than in some of the pieces penned in my mother tongue. Minier portrays Commandant Servaz in much the same way as my Scandinavian police officers, fighting his own demons and with a personal life more jagged than peaceful. Servaz seems to have an agenda all his own, surrounded by colleagues who are anything but sycophants. He struggles to piece together the clues, but always ends up positing the most outlandish possibilities, some of which prove fruitful as he synthesizes the statements made by reluctant witnesses. Minier is able not only to tell his dark mystery, but also create a decent backstory for a few of his characters, whose lives away from the office and the case at hand show that they, too, have secrets they prefer not rise to the surface. The story remains dark and the element of equine torture pulls the reader in from the early going. What else might Minier have in store for the reader? Exploration of the asylum angle only further baits the reader and keeps the story from becoming too predictable. Slow to develop, but with a constant sense of forward movement, Minier pulls the reader along and keeps things from becoming too easy to discern. These are the best types of novels, as the reader can never tell where a twist will take things. Minier’s debut novel has me curious and I will certainly be back for more in the near future.
Kudos, Mr. Minier, for pulling me in and finding a new fan. I can only hope that others will be as intrigued to read this and the other novels in which Martin Servaz makes an appearance.