A Song for Drowned Souls – Bernard Minier

This is the second in the ‘Commandant Servaz’ series by Bernard Minier, featuring the same leading light, and many of his supporting staff. The starting point is the discovery in Marsac (a hitherto quiet little place in the Pyrenees) of a murdered teacher. In the garden, beside a swimming pool populated with floating dolls, the police find a somewhat dazed and drugged boy, who claims to remember nothing. Inevitably, he becomes the chief suspect. Unfortunately for Servaz, the boy is the son of one of his first loves – for whom he still holds affection – and she pressurizes him into trying to clear her son. From that point on, things spiral out of control somewhat.

First, and foremost, to get the best out of this book, you should read the first in the series before tackling this one. (My review is here.)

Second, this book does reveal much more of Servaz’s past, adding some weight to the character. Servaz is a fine invention, and his continuing development is a joy to follow. Thankfully, the author does spend some good and productive time with other characters as well, with Zeigler, Samira, and Van Acker being those who most intrigued me. I can see the importance of the Julian Hirtman character (aka Hannibal Lecter in French) but Mr Minier is going to have to go some to outdo the Thomas Harris creation. And Hirtman is too similar to stand out. He is not a bad characterization, but ironically is the most in danger of looking like a cliche.

Third, and partly as a consequence of the number of characters, er, floating about, the plot takes some time to come together. However, I found the build up to be well done, maintaining my interest. The trail is partly responsible for us finding out more about Servaz’s past, as well as the hidden secrets of the accused, the victim, and many of the other characters. There were a couple of occasions where I thought the book was in danger of easing up the tension too much, but the author got back on track just in time.

Fourth, the book and the characters have a somewhat different feel. This is definitely not a case of just another crime book; it stands out, is fresh, and remains very accessible. The author is neither trying to dazzle us with his vocabulary, nor impress us with how far he can stretch suspension of disbelief. He just concentrates on fine writing, good observation, and quirky characters.

Fifth, the plot is well constructed, and is skillfully revealed, with enough false leads and twists to keep up the tension.

Incidentally, Alison Anderson’s translation is invisible; a good sign.

Finally, the acid test delivered the ultimate confirmation that this was a good one: when I got to the last page, I was oh so disappointed.

 

 

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The Frozen Dead – Bernard Minier

A French bestseller, wonderfully translated by Alison Anderson, this is the author’s debut novel, being a thoroughly decent crime tale, featuring several interesting characters – one of them a Hannibal Lecter type – set in the small Pyrenean town of Saint-Martin-de-Comminges, and the surrounding area. There happens to be a cable car, and a high security lunatic asylum (he Charles Wargnier Institute for Forensic Psychiatry) in the vicinity. Both are central to the story, but more central is Commandant Servaz, the policeman from Toulouse called in to investigate the brutal, troubling, killing of a horse. Yes, you read that right. It starts off with a horse killing.

From that unlikely beginning, the author spins a complex tale that slowly builds up a head of steam. Servaz and his crew are well drawn characters, sharing the limelight with the backdrop setting.

At the asylum, Dr Wargnier has been replaced by the  slimy Dr Xavier. Dr Diane Berg, a newly recruited psychiatrist there, is given a rather cold, unfriendly, and troubling welcome by him at her new place of work. And then there are the batch of highly dangerous criminals incarcerated in the place. The other points of interest include the mega rich man of business, Eric Lombard, owner of the locally situated riding school (from where the horse was taken) and chateau.

It’s a sort of cocktail mix of haunted castle, Silence of the Lambs, and defective detective. And, in the main, it works quite well.

Of course, the horse is not the first to die, and Servaz – ever under pressure from his bosses, given Lombard’s connections – is in a race against time to solve the baffling clues, and track down the killer.

There are some moments of true spine chilling horror, and quite enough plot twists, red herrings, and surprises.

I enjoyed the book, though some may complain it was unnecessarily long. I didn’t see it that way, because the pacing seemed appropriate, and the combined effect of what the author has produced worked well for me. Also, it came across as somewhat different in its tone and its perspective, and it stood out from the crowd. I would recommend it. And I will be following the author to see what he does with the characters.

 

 

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