Written by Bernard Minier — There is something disquieting about the icy wilderness of the Pyrenees. Diane Berg, a young forensic psychologist, is accustomed to mountains: after all, she is Swiss and has trained with the prestigious Professor Spitzner at the University of Geneva. But the Pyrenees are far more savage than the Alps, and her new job at a secure asylum for the criminally insane will prove to be the most dangerous work she has ever engaged in. She is made to feel very unwelcome by the current director of the institute, Dr Xavier, and his grim assistant Lisa Ferney. Diane soon suspects there is something going on between them, and that they are trying to hide a secret, perhaps one far greater than the controversial aversion therapy they are keen to use on their patients.
Meanwhile, at a nearby hydroelectric power plant accessible only by cable car, maintenance workers make a gruesome discovery. A decapitated horse hangs suspended from the edge of the frozen cliff. Commandant Servaz from the Toulouse police does not appreciate being called out for the death of an animal, however dramatic the circumstances. It turns out, however, that the horse’s owner is none other than the powerful industrialist Eric Lombard, whose family owns the power plant. Could this be an act of revenge, a warning signal, a taster of more fearsome events to come?
When the DNA of the the most notorious inmate of the asylum, Swiss serial killer Julian Hirtmann, is found on the horse’s cadaver, the two stories merge in a chilling tale of secret terrors and cold-blooded murders.
This is edge-of-the-seat suspense and atmospheric writing, which had me gulping with fear. The author is masterful at ratcheting up the tension to almost unbearable levels, although I did feel a little let down by the baroque shoot-it-all-out ending. This is the reason why I have given the book 4 rather than 5 stars.
Servaz and his sidekick Irene Ziegler are interesting, complex and very plausible creations, without being ridiculously eccentric. The ever-curious Diane reminds me of Clarice Starling, but I do wish she could have interacted with the investigators a bit earlier in the process. She does have a knack for putting herself in dangerous situations without relying on the police, which seems to me the least plausible part of the story.
The plotting and style are so self-assured and mature that it’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. This is another of those thrillers that French authors are becoming expert at: taking the tropes of American crime fiction (in this case, serial killers and insanity) and making them resolutely their own. Unlike other contemporary French bestselling thriller writers such as Jean-Christophe Grangé, Caryl Férey and David Khara, however, the setting here is most recognisably French and beautifully sinister.
This is a perfect holiday read: its dark wintery landscapes will chill and thrill you on hot summer days.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars