Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on In Bitter Chill.
Secrets fester in a small village in the idyllic English countryside, a place where family business is kept private, families linked for generations by birth and relationships. When the mother of a girl kidnapped in 1978 commits suicide on the anniversary of that event, the other victim, the girl who returned, dreads the reopening of the investigation and the gathering of reporters she knows will follow. Rachel Jones, a genealogist by trade, is the girl who returned after the kidnapping in 1978, the one who came home. The other, Sophie Jenkins, has never been found. Now Sophie’s mother, Yvonne, has taken her own life.
Inspector Llewellyn of the Derbyshire Peak District in Brampton, England, recalls the kidnapping from his early days as a policeman. Rachel
was unable to remember anything afterward, Sophie gone without a trace. The Inspector requests that Detective Inspector Francis Sadler use his homicide team to review the cold case. While Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer, about to be married, is somewhat distracted, Detective Constable Constance Childs is excited by the prospect of rooting around in the history of Brampton, hopeful that current investigative technology will provide answers unavailable in 1978. When retired schoolteacher Penny Lander, a contemporary of Yvonne Jenkins, is strangled in the same woods where Rachel was found wandering after the kidnapping, the detectives suspect the cases may be linked.
In Bitter Chill is a classic English police procedural, the solution approached from different perspectives: the official investigation into the Lander’s murder, Sadler and Childs in pursuit of histories and events, and Rachel Jones’s decision to unravel the story hidden in her memory, a few details flickering just out of reach, impressions that have no context. She’s been content to leave the past alone all these years, but the intrusions of police and reporters have inspired a competitive urge to learn the truth herself. Piece by piece, Rachel assembled the fragments of the past: “That photo had started all this. How utterly random and depressing.”
This is Ward’s first novel, but she writes with the smooth assurance of a seasoned storyteller, balancing chapters of the official investigation
(primarily undertaken by DI Sadler and DC Childs) with Rachel’s attempts to unlock the past, using research skills developed in her chosen profession. Characters are neither stereotypical nor one-dimensional, their personal affairs adding dimension to the story. The villagers are lively and often charming, especially the relationship between Rachel Jones and her elderly grandmother, Nan, a perfect example of the English penchant for endurance and discretion even under the most difficult of circumstances: “Secrets could be everywhere and no one would mention a thing.”
While Sophie’s mother, Yvonne, has remained a prisoner of her grief since the loss of her daughter, suicide her only solution, Rachel is beginning to break free of the awful event that has shaped her life, asking difficult questions even when she is fearful of the answers.
Brampton is a village steeped in the past, harboring generations of secrets.
The combination of suicide and brutal murder forces a final resolution to the mystery of the 1978 kidnapping of two young girls. Home to the stories of those who have lived there, the village embraces the actions good or ill of
its inhabitants, secrets sheltered by the silence and the seasons, one generation yielding to another. Technology has changed all that, dug up the bones of an unfinished story, a threat to those who have transgressed. Ward captures all of it beautifully and at a deliberate pace, the final reckoning a setting right of wrongs
that allows suffering souls to walk more comfortably in the world.