In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward — A novel of dark family secrets

Sarah Ward’s debut novel, In Bitter Chill, is set in Derbyshire in England’s Peak District. This is a cold, winter landscape that is well suited to crime fiction.  Ward captures it beautifully giving In Bitter Chill a strong sense of place.

The novel opens with a short prologue. A man and woman are together in Truscott Woods. The man is digging, “trying to break ground that his ancestors knew to leave well alone”. Close by lies a body wrapped in a winding sheet. Clearly, the body is about to be buried. But who and why?

Fast forward to Chapter 1 where Detective Inspector Francis Sadler receives news of a suicide. A body has been found in the nearby Wilton Hotel. The dead woman is Yvonne Jenkins. She is in her sixties and is known to the police. This is because her daughter, Sophie, disappeared on the way to school some thirty years earlier.

Sophie and another girl — Rachel Jones — went missing in January 1978. They had accepted a lift from a stranger. Although Rachel subsequently turned up, confused and barefoot, Sophie Jenkins was never found.

The investigation into girls’ disappearance lay fallow for several years. But, because Yvonne’s suicide occurred close to the anniversary of the 1978 abduction, the police decide to look for a link to the old case.

Meanwhile, when news of Yvonne’s suicide reaches Rachel it reopens old memories. So, Rachel sets out to find out what really happened all those years ago.

As Rachel and the police set about figuring out what happened, it becomes clear that three separate cases are linked. While one of these cases is from the past, two are from the present. It is clear that people are keeping secrets and that Rachel’s research skills could be the key to unlock the mystery.

Catalyst for change

Meanwhile, assisting DI Sadler in the investigation is DC Connie Childs.

“Whether she liked it or not, Connie was a catalyst for change and that was what this case, or cases, desperately needed.”

Connie, Sadler and DS Palmer are well drawn investigators and the interaction between the three is well written. It will be interesting to see if Sarah Ward returns to these characters in future novels. I, for one, would be interested in reading more.

In Bitter Chill would be a good choice for book clubs. Ancestry, inherited memory and place are all themes that could be discussed. The theme I’d most enjoy exploring is the different attitudes between 1970s and now. Family relationships are where these differences are most pronounced — illegitimacy, family breakdown, separation and divorce, and children’s lives.

In Bitter Chill is a very accomplished debut novel. Sarah Ward has created a good sense of place, a strong plot and believable characters. Better still,  she maintains suspense to the end.

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward is published by Faber & Faber. [Disclosure: An Advance Review Copy (ARC) was provided by the publisher via Netgalley for the purpose of this review).

Swamp Bones : A Kathy Reichs Straight-To-Digital Story

The best-selling author Kathy Reichs has no shortage of fans. Yet, somehow despite enjoying forensic science in novels, I had never got round to reading her.  So when I got the opportunity to review Swamp Bones, I was curious to see what I would find.

In this straight-to-digital short story, Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist, goes on holiday to the Florida Everglades National Park. She unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of an investigation when human bones turn up in the stomach a Burmese Python. I learned plenty about snakes and not a little about human bones in this short story. That said, t’s probably not a title I’d choose left to my own devices.

Published by Random House in September 2014 Swamp Bones also contains the first chapter of Kathy Reich’s new novel Bones Never Lie.

[Disclosure: An Advance Review Copy was provided by the publisher via Netgalley.com].

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

The minute I finished reading Hawthorn & Child, I logged on to amazon.com to buy more of Keith Ridgway’s work and wondered why I hadn’t come across him before now. I love books that capture your attention in the first paragraph and keep you up all night reading and Hawthorn & Child is definitely in that category.

Edgy, fragmentary, literary —  it is unusual and original and although on the surface it might be described as crime fiction there is a lot more going on here in a relatively short novel that will hang around in your head long after you’ve finished reading it.

In a way, the chapters in Hawthorn & Child are a little like a series of the sort of tenuously related episodes you might experience in a dream and, in fact, where dream stops and reality begins is one of the themes present from the very outset.

Hawthorn & Child opens with two detectives on their way to investigate a shooting. Child is driving, Hawthorn is asleep and dreaming.  Reality intrudes on the dream and sirens sound as the two detectives make their way to visit the victim of a shooting.

At the hospital, the victim waiting to undergo surgery reports that he was shot by “a beautiful old car” — a vintage car with running boards that came out of nowhere and that nobody else seems to have seen.

We never do find out if the car is real or who was driving it. Instead, through the following chapters, we are introduced to a variety of other characters that touch in different ways — some more significant than others — on the main protagonists. They range from the detectives’ boss, Rivers, and his troubled artistic daughter, to a pickpocket and his girlfriend who communicate with each other by writing their private thoughts in a shared diary, from a soccer referee who sees ghosts on the football pitch to a book editor that might be a serial killer.

The reader catches glimpses of these various characters and is left to try to work out where they fit, whether they are real even and how or whether the different fragments fit together.

Hawthorn & Child is a really original novel. I’m looking forward to reading more of Keith Ridgway.

This review is of the Kindle edition of Hawthorn & Child which I purchased on amazon.com.

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway is published by Granta.
ISBN: 978 1 84708 528 3