Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on In Bitter Chill.
Set in the bucolic English village of Bampton on the grit-stone edges of middle England’s Derbyshire, Ward’s serpentine mystery introduces us to three new detectives, each with
a distinct personality: forty-something Detective Inspector Francis Sadler, DS Damian Palmer, and diminutive and plucky DC Connie Shields. The three are destined to cross paths with a case that has remained unsolved since 1978 and parallels the apparent suicide of an elderly woman who lost her young daughter thirty years
Yvonne Jenkins, the mother of eight-year-old Sophie Jenkins, the little girl who disappeared on 20th January 1978, has been found at Bampton’s popular Wilton Hotel with an empty packet of diazepam on the bedside table. The Wilton Hotel is indeed a strange destination for a woman living isolated and alone in her
spartan bungalow, her life that seemed until now metaphorically encased in ice. The detectives have no idea why Yvonne would choose a hotel, considering that she was rumored to be expecting her
40-year-old daughter to come waltzing right back into her home at Arkwright Lane.
A teenager at the time, Sadler remembers the lurid headlines as Sophie’s disappearance was reported throughout the press. Rachel Jones--“the other girl,” the one who survived--remembers how they took their usual walk from school before being abducted by a woman with long dark hair and glasses. Rachel was able to escape, but she remembers nothing except the woman and that the car was driven to the edge of Truscott Woods. She was found at around midday wandering along the main Bampton Road in a dazed state. No one, least of all Rachel, has any idea what happened in the intervening period.
With the anniversary of the kidnappings approaching, Sadler’s boss, Superintendent Llewellyn, orders the team
to take a fresh look at the case, though Sadler thinks it’s a mistake and that Llewellyn is not thinking strategically. Investigating a case with a thirty-six-year-old trail is fraught with difficulty, especially as there’s only one unreliable witness who can’t add anything meaningful to the investigation. As ambitious Palmer and experienced Connie plunge deep into the investigation, Ward introduces us to adult Rachel, who now works as Bampton’s chief family history researcher. Rachel remains emotionally traumatized by the events back in 1978. She can only remember the kidnapping in shattered dream-like
shards, but she constantly thinks about something she has locked away in her mind in “a great wall of metal draws”--draws that, if opened, might give her some of the answers she’s been looking for.
Narrated from the point of view of Sadler, Connie, and poor beleaguered Rachel, who is again and again rejected by anything resembling comfort in the years since 1978, Ward wields a special gift that trembles and ricochets around the circuitous, opaque nature of family history and the festering evil of what is left unsaid in the snowy village of Bampton, which seems to be enduring one of the coldest winters on record. For Sadler, the cold case is an opportunity to lend a sympathetic ear to Rachel and a respite from the married woman he’s been seeing.
With Palmer is jittery over his impending nuptials, it is Connie who leads the way in the investigation, guiding the team into a territory that is far more intimate and fraught with betrayal than first thought.
When a local school teacher is murdered in a twist that links her to Yvonne Lander and the damaging events of long ago, Sadler becomes convinced that the intended kidnapping victim was Rachel. Connie and Palmer are both under orders from Sadler to keep an open mind and think of the scenarios why a woman might abduct not one child but two. Both are unsurprised when the trail turns to Yvonne’s estranged husband, Peter, who
was apparently perfectly willing to swap his own family for another. With the focus now shifting from Sophie to Rachel, Sadler is convinced more than ever that Sophie is almost certainly lying buried somewhere deep in Truscott Woods.
From the cold, chilly streets of Bampton to the dark, deceptively pastoral trails of Truscott, Ward creates a subtle sense of menace linking a present-day murder to the skeletons of the past and Rachel’s uncompleted family tree, the missing Sophie, and Palmer and Connie’s efforts to find the little girl after a thirty-year slumber. The investigation leads to a complex web of relationships cemented together years earlier before the War and into a path of tragedy that circles back to Yvonne‘s final act
(“a woman finished with life”); to aloof schoolteacher Penny Lander and her sudden obsession with the girls’ kidnapping; and finally to Rachel, who seeks to distance herself as far as possible from her 1978 self and that black-and-white photograph linking her inexorably to the past.
Though some readers might find the novel slow, I thought Ward’s strong, intricate prose style gives the novel a strength that is reflected in the characters of her main protagonists--the three detectives who have an instinct for investigation (and survival) which at first brings mixed results and a number of dead-ends but soon allows Connie to give Palmer the clues he needs to finally release the cavalcade of Rachel’s disparate and dark family secrets.