IN 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 
Length 355 pages
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