Book review: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward
When two Derbyshire schoolgirls were abducted in the winter of 1978, one girl escaped and the other was never found.
Thirty-six years later, two deaths will finally unlock dark secrets from the past… and the truth will go deep into the heart and soul of a tightly knit community.
In Bitter Chill, a disturbing tale of love, loss, family and the fallout from personal trauma, is the outstanding debut from Sarah Ward, a reviewer and Scandinavian crime fiction judge, who has taken a leaf out of the books of some of the world’s most famous crime writers and come up with her own enthralling novel.
Her thrilling mix of mystery, suspense, superb characterisation and detective work, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the rugged Peak District, comes complete with the fluidity, acumen and assurance of what feels like a seasoned writer.
Ward lives amidst the undulating moorland and gritstone of the peaks and this atmospheric location is just one of the star players in a riveting story that weaves together past and present with flair, precision and a keen intelligence.
In 1978, the small town of Bampton in Derbyshire was left shocked and appalled by the kidnapping of two eight-year-old girls as they walked to school one January morning.
One of them, Rachel Jones, was later found unharmed but unable to remember anything except that her abductor was a woman. The other girl, Sophie, only child of recently divorced local woman Yvonne Jenkins, was never found.
Thirty-six years later, Yvonne Jenkins, whose life has been ‘frozen’ in time since the abduction, is found dead in an apparent suicide at a Bampton hotel on the exact date that her daughter went missing.
Rachel Jones, meanwhile, has tried to put the past behind her. She has never married but works as a genealogist, digging into the family trees of others while keeping her memories and parts of her own family history under mental lock and key.
But news of the suicide reopens old wounds and Superintendent Llewellyn, who was a young constable on the 1978 case, asks DI Francis Sadler and his team to look again at the kidnapping to see if modern police methods can discover something that the original team missed.
But Sadler is convinced that a more recent event triggered Yvonne’s suicide and when, just days later, a former teacher at the girl’s school is found strangled, Rachel realises she must help the police and finally discover what really happened all those years ago.
In Bitter Chill features a compelling, complex plot, loaded with emotive issues, fascinating psychological insights, a pervasive sense of unease and gripping police procedural. Ward’s cast of outstanding characters, from the police officers and the victims to a local community with a shared history, are powerfully portrayed.
This is a chilling story about the often unseen legacy of past crimes, the well-concealed secrets that poison families, and the redemptive search for truths that will finally heal the scars of damaged lives.
Ward, a perceptive and observant writer, explores how far we should go to protect our children, the impact of crimes on families, and the haunting experiences of survivors trapped in the prison of their memories.
A terrific debut from a natural born crime writer…
(Faber, hardback, £12.99)