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).