In Bitter Chill | Sarah Ward | 2015 | Faber & Faber | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book
Derbyshire, January 1978: two 8-year old girls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins, do what they know they shouldn’t. They accept a lift. Rachel survives, traumatised and with damaged memories but alive. Sophie never came home, her body presumed buried in the local woods, perhaps unfindable. Thirty years later, to the day, Sophie’s mother Yvonne is found dead in a nearby hotel. It is assumed that she took her own life but why wait until now? DI Francis Sadler is asked to investigate, to give the case some closure. Inevitably, Sadler and his team find the missing girls cold case of 1978 too tempting to resist. Perhaps Yvonne’s death will give them a way in to the investigation. Perhaps the original police team missed something.
One person more than any other is affected by the reopening of the case – Rachel Jones. While trying to live her own independent, fear-free life as a professional genealogist, Yvonne’s death and the resulting police investigation and frenzied media interest stir up a host of memories to haunt Rachel’s waking and sleeping hours, some of which she had assumed were lost and buried for ever.
In Bitter Chill is Sarah Ward’s debut novel and it is extremely accomplished and thoroughly successful. It thrills for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s very well written and perfectly structured. The narrative moves around between Rachel and Sadler and his team but also includes flashbacks as Rachel slowly begins to remember what happened thirty years before. Each of these strands is vivid and fully realised – we have the young Rachel running off to school wearing socks that cannot stay up (I remember the same thing from around the same time – my socks were held up by elastic that left deep red rings), we have DS Damian Palmer’s frets about his approaching wedding, DS Connie Childs’ efforts to impress their handsome almost untouchable boss Sadler, and we have present-day Rachel trying to hold her life together yet again. Sarah Ward fills each element with the little details that make it all very believable and engrossing. I liked each one of the main characters, the psychology that holds up Rachel is fascinating – as is her unusual approach to genealogy, and I really enjoyed spending time with Sadler, Childs and Palmer.
The plot itself is a corker. Rachel’s flashbacks suggest that it’s only a matter of time before the truth is revealed but the dogged police work of Sadler and his team, paired with Rachel’s increasingly involved interest, builds up the tension. I didn’t guess anything either – always a bonus! The mix of past and present, recovering memories and newly discovered clues works so well.
The disappearance or loss of a child is not an easy subject to read about, although it does seem quite a common theme in psychological and crime fiction thrillers this year. In Bitter Chill, however, treats it entirely differently. For one thing, one of the missing was found and this adds a whole new edge to the mystery of what happened. The effects of such a case on a small community is also explored as is its impact on the families and friends of the missing girls. Yvonne’s death stirs up so many feelings and Sarah Ward does them such justice.
This is an impressive debut novel featuring a team of detectives I really took to. I can’t wait to see what happens next.