Bampton, Derbyshire, January 1978. Two girls go missing: Rachel Jones returns, Sophie Jenkins is never found. Thirty years later: Sophie Jenkins’s mother commits suicide.
Rachel Jones has tried to put the past behind her and move on with her life. But news of the suicide re-opens old wounds and Rachel realises that the only way she can have a future is to finally discover what really happened all those years ago…
With a thought-provoking and atmospheric blend of police procedural and psychological thriller, Sarah Ward will quickly establish herself as a name to watch in the crime fiction genre. Drawing on her experience as a seasoned crime reviewer, Ward has carefully crafted a thriller that will appeal to fans of the British and Scandinavian crime genre, with an extremely character driven novel, that pivots between an historic child abduction case in the 70’s, and the ramifications of this thirty years on…
In terms of the police procedural, Ward has created a trio of extremely strong police protagonists, and the underlying tensions that lay between them. DCI Francis Sadler is a seasoned police officer tasked with the case, but the book focuses as strongly on his two young police cohorts DS Damien Palmer, and DC Connie Childs and the petty rivalry and professional jealousies that lay between them in their attempts to court the affections of their much respected boss. In truth, it was this aspect of the book that engaged me the most throughout, and I was particularly taken with Connie who was a well-crafted and utterly believable character. It was great when she went slightly off-piste, so to speak, in her attempts to impress the boss, and gain ground on the floundering Palmer, whose private life and tribulations seemed to impact greatly on his professional performance. Tempered by the natural stoicism of Sadler, and the domestic trials of Palmer, Connie consistently shone through the book. The whiff of sexual tension between Connie and her boss was also beautifully played, but by the same token did not feel ham-fisted or out of kilter with the way that we saw their relationship as readers, and will stoke the fire in future books I’m sure.
With the emotive subject of child abduction, and the subsequent suspicious deaths as a result of the initial case, Ward carefully manipulates the reader as to how the past cannot help but impact on the present. As much as the book works as a police procedural, it is in her rendering of Rachel’s character, that we fully appreciate the balance Ward achieves in the book between police and victim, with Rachel’s fears and development as a person in the light of her traumatic childhood experience beautifully and sensitively depicted. There is no question that is a strong feel of underlying emotional damage to Rachel, but when deaths occur linked to her own experience, she steels herself to confront the past, and revisit those dark areas that are impacting on those around her. With her chosen career as a genealogist, she is more than used to filling in other people’s histories, but investigating her own is a far darker proposition. To be truthful, I did get a little bogged down in the more factual emphasis on the genealogy, as it is not a subject that I am overly interested in, but Ward does reign it in as the book progresses to get us back on track with the central plot.
Set in Derbyshire, the book is underscored by a strong depiction of the surrounding locale and mercurial weather conditions of this most picturesque area of Britain. Equally, and with a nod to the Scandinavian genre, Ward builds up a strong sense of the claustrophobic and suspicious nature of a small community rooted in a totally rural setting, and the close connections and inter-relations between its inhabitants. This helps to grow the tension of the plot, and equally allows us to identify the possible links between Rachel and others in the hunt for a killer, and the cause of her childhood friend’s unresolved disappearance. Enhanced by the strong characterisation throughout, and an intriguing plot with its shifting time-line, In Bitter Chill, proves itself a solid and intriguing debut, and a good addition to the British crime fiction genre. Well worth a read.
Sarah Ward is an online book reviewer whose blog, Crimepieces reviews the best of current crime fiction published around the world. She has also reviewed for Eurocrime and Crimesquad and is a judge for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian translated crime novels. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrward1
(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)