In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

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Paperback review by Gill Davies

This is Sarah Ward’s first novel.  She is a very experienced reader of the genre – she blogs at Crimepieces and reviews and judges Scandinavian crime writing. It shows – and this certainly reads like the work of an accomplished crime writer who I am sure will be very successful.

Rachel Jones and her friend Sophie Jenkins, both eight years old, were kidnapped on their way to school in 1978. She escaped but Sophie was never found and all Rachel remembers is that a woman was responsible. Thirty seven years later, on the anniversary of the abduction, Sophie’s mother is found dead in a local hotel, and it seems that her death may be linked with the unsolved crime. Though still living in the small Derbyshire town where it happened, Rachel has tried to forget the past but it becomes increasingly likely that the two events are connected. Rachel starts to explore repressed memories while the police open the old case and start to investigate some anomalies surrounding Mrs Jenkins’s death. Soon afterwards a second death occurs that is clearly murder so the cold case and the current ones are pursued in parallel by the police and by Rachel herself who feels an increasing need to unravel the past. It’s an unusual start, overlapping investigations into crimes against two young schoolgirls thirty years ago and two dull, respectable retired women in the present.

I’ve just finished reviewing Laura Lippman’s Hush, Hush and this is another novel about mothers and daughters – but it is very different. It is a wholly English police procedural set in a small town and concerning a cold case, focussing on secrets from the past and scrutinising claustrophobic small town life that is all the more disturbing because it seems so mundane. Sarah Ward mixes police procedural elements with those of the psychological thriller to uncover family mysteries, small town secrets, gossip, and suspicion. “Bitter chill” vividly describes the mood which pervades the novel, set in the depths of winter – dark days, long nights, ice everywhere, and people covering up both literally and metaphorically. Asked by the police what Mrs Jenkins was like, her neighbour replies “‘Frozen. She was frozen.’” And clues are eventually found hidden in attics, deep in woodland or buried in garden sheds.

There is a strong sense of place in this novel. The local colour of the Peak District is sketched in (rugged moors, picturesque views and so on) but I think the more important sense of locality is the way Ward conveys the feel of the town itself: narrow streets and squares, pubs, a boutique hotel, back lanes, and the churchyard. Connie Childs, the female detective, was born and brought up in the town and her local links and understanding are important. It is also through her and Rachel that we begin to see that despite how much this town has changed since the 1970s, it is still trapped in the past.

The narrative structure is ingenious and very effectively builds suspense that is sustained until the last pages. It moves between reporting the police investigation and Rachel’s struggles to make sense of her abduction and its haunting return. Her research is complicated by the fact that she has repressed the past events and her own relatives (her mother is dead but her grandmother seems to know more than she admits) were unwilling to discuss it with her. In a neat move Ward makes Rachel’s everyday work dove-tail with the novel’s themes: she is a genealogist and local historian, especially interested in women’s history. In her work she stresses the importance of people using memory as well as documents and facts to build up a clear picture of the past . And this is exactly what happens as the novel draws to its conclusion and the police investigation and Rachel’s start to come together. There is a parallel too between Rachel and Connie who has a particular gift for making connections and suggestions before all the facts are known.

Rachel’s work emphasises the female line of the family tree and the novel too focuses on women, from the initial crime, then two subsequent deaths, and the key role of the female detective. There is a notable absence of fathers who seem to have died first or died young or disappeared. The linking of personal history and local events is the backbone of the novel, both its main plot and its underlying thematic interest – parents, family secrets, and women’s secrets.

The main characters are well delineated and individually interesting: the older Detective Inspector Sadler is rather truculent and (stereo-)typically bad at relationships. But there is also a sense of an inner life, an awareness of his deficiencies. He has a soft spot and some admiration (that he conceals) for the new young female detective in his team. Connie’s slightly more senior partner and rival, Detective Sergeant Palmer has his own troubles that increasingly impact upon his work and the rivalries between them help to flesh out the dynamic of the investigation. These characters seem set to reappear in future novels. Meanwhile, do read this – you’ll enjoy it.

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Sarah Ward, In Bitter Chill (Faber & Faber, 2015). 9780571321001, 368pp., paperback.

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