Review: IN BITTER CHILL by Sarah Ward

InBitterChillWardIN BITTER CHILL is the story of a kidnapping and its lingering aftermath. Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins disappeared on their walk to school in 1978. Rachel was found unharmed several hours later and Sophie has never been seen again. When Sophie’s mother, who still lives in the Derbyshire house to which her daughter never returned, commits suicide three decades later public and police interest in the old case is reignited and Rachel Jones becomes determined to uncover what happened all those years ago.

I doubt there is any 40-something person from my little corner of the world whose childhood was not in some way influenced by kidnappings. We lived in the shadow of two hugely publicized cases reminiscent of the one depicted here. The kidnappings of the three Beaumont children in 1966 and Joanne Ratcliffe and Kirste Gordon seven years later are among the entire country’s most notorious real-life mysteries (both remain unsolved) and the manner in which they shattered the innocence of what was then a small and unsophisticated city had lengthy reverberations for the community as a whole. I assume it is because of this that I am always particularly drawn to plots involving kidnappings but I often find them disappointing. Happily in this instance I was enthralled from start to finish because IN BITTER CHILL depicts the ripple effect such cases can have with terrific authenticity,  teasing out the impact of events on those directly involved along with the ‘lesser’ players and showing the relentless way in which the media and general public become consumed by such cases.

Without wanting to give too much away one of the themes the novel explores is the strength of various kinds of family bonds. This is not only in the obvious connection that Yvonne Jenkins has to her long-disappeared daughter but in many other ways, most of which I can’t detail any further for fear of plot spoilers. I will say that debut author Sarah Ward has used the profession of one of her lead characters to great effect here as Rachel Jones’ genealogical research skills prove useful both within the plot and to link various elements together.

The police playing a key role in the novel take the form of a somewhat remote but respected DI Francis Sadler, a male DS nervously contemplating his impending marriage in the form of Damian Palmer and a no-nonsense female DC called Connie Childs. If this novel is the start of a series I will look forward to meeting all three again as they have an interesting team dynamic and none appear to be of the ‘loner alcoholic genius who is always in danger due to their stupidly risky behaviour’ variety of crime sleuth that I am increasingly bored by. On balance though I’d say the police characters collectively take a back seat to Rachel and others directly involved in or impacted by the crimes that are committed which is, in my opinion anyway, as it should be. I thought the depiction of Rachel a particularly good one as she grappled with uncovering confronting things about the pivotal events of her early life.

Although I read the book in only a couple of sittings I’d put IN BITTER CHILL in the slow burn category of reading experience by which I mean its complex plot unfolds at a natural pace and without the assistance of the car chases or gratuitous blood and gore that a more ‘thrilling’ novel might have. For me this is much more satisfying because it is so much more plausible, and therefore more scary, than any serial-killer laden tome. There’s still plenty of suspense though and more than enough compulsion to keep turning the pages right to the very satisfactory resolution. A top notch read from an author I will be following closely.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Faber and Faber [2015]
ISBN 9780571320981
Length 355 pages
Format Hardback

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8 Responses to Review: IN BITTER CHILL by Sarah Ward

  1. I’m so glad you liked this as much as you did, Bernadette. I agree with you that one of the strengths of this novel is the way that we see the impact of the disappearance on the various characters. It’s at that human level that I always think adds to a story. And I like the way the various plot threads are woven together. It may be a ‘slow-burn,’ but it’s never plodding. And I do like the setting.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Such a good book, I enjoyed it hugely. Interesting mystery, great characters and not too much gratuitous violence.


    • With so many of us NOT enjoying overly violent books I ponder who it is that does enjoy that kind of thing – clearly lots of people as those are the majority of books in the genre but I don’t seem to know the people who read them


  3. tracybham says:

    You highlighted exactly what I liked about this book. It has so many levels. I love police procedurals and this combines that type of fiction with a deeper look into the psychological aspects.


  4. kathy d. says:

    I liked this book very much. It has many aspects of a traditional mystery, yet told in the current day. Also, I give points for it not having gratuitous violence and piling body counts everywhere. It’s character studies and the unraveling of a past crime combined with some current deaths and investigations.
    One thing I really liked is that the reader and investigators are uncovering the mystery at the same time. The reader is not shocked or taken unaware. The truth is revealed as it should be in a mystery, like the unpeeling of an union layer by layer. The author does this very skillfully, as she shows her skills as a writer who is an experienced reader of crime fiction and knows what works.
    There is another book in the works; that’s the good news.


    • Yes Sarah mentioned that she has been hard at work on a second book Kathy and I agree that is good news indeed. You make a good point about the mystery here being revealed to the investigators and the readers at the same time – I’m always annoyed when this doesn’t happen (M. Poirot I’m looking at you).


  5. Sounds great – one for the TBR tower, I mean, pile.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Like most of us, I loved this and look forward to a good strong series. I loved that it was a proper police procedural, but without too much in the way of gruesomes.


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