In 1978, two young girls, Sophie and Rachel, are abducted on their way to school when they get into a car with a stranger. Hours later, Rachel is found wandering barefoot along a road while there is no sign of Sophie.
Thirty years later, Sophie’s mother, Yvonne, commits suicide in a hotel room and the police decide to take another look at the case in the hopes that modern policing techniques may reveal something that was missed. Days after Yvonne’s death, the body of another woman is discovered in the woods near where Rachel was found and is identified as Penny Lander, a retired school teacher who taught at the primary school both girls attended. When Lander’s death is revealed to have been caused by strangulation, the murder case becomes a priority but DI Francis Sadler is convinced they are connected somehow and continues to investigate both cases despite orders to the contrary.
The recent deaths, coupled with memories of the original abduction, creates a sense of unease in the small community in Derbyshire, particularly for Rachel Jones who is now in her forties. Since Rachel was drugged during the abduction, she hasn’t been able to remember much about that day but it continues to haunt her every waking moment. Although she is shocked by Yvonne’s death, Rachel is unhappy when she hears the old case is being re-opened, and she is dismayed when the press starts camping on her doorstep. The death of Penny Lander throws Rachel into a tailspin and she is determined to uncover the truth but to do that, she needs to start to remember.
In Bitter Chill is a solid crime novel which borrows heavily from the Scandinavian genre in its atmosphere and storytelling. Set in a rural community in Derbyshire in the midst of a harsh winter, the climate is as bleak as the dark subject matter which just adds to the ambience. The pace is slow with the characters firmly at the forefront so the thrills are few and far between but thankfully the main protagonists are interesting enough to hold our attention. There are multiple viewpoints so we see the case from both sides of the equation: DI Francis Sadler is an enigmatic but competent police officer who will be an interesting leading man if the author choses to make this a series. Sadler’s experience is offset by his junior detectives, DS Damian Palmer and DC Connie Childs, who are constantly competing for Sadler’s approval. As the book progresses, it is Connie who seems to take more of an active role as Palmer is sidelined by his wedding. The characters make for an interesting trio but the sexual tension between Sadler and Connie is predictable and a theme I’ve come across far too often in the crime genre recently.
Apart from the police personnel, the other main role goes to Rachel Jones, and Ward portrays her convincingly as an adult survivor of a childhood trauma. While Rachel has spent most of her life trying to forget that awful day, the past keeps resurfacing and she becomes increasingly aware the only way she can be free is to confront it. Rachel’s profession as a family historian is a fascinating one and as she delves deeper into her own past, she realises she has been subconsciously developing the perfect tools her whole life. As someone who is digging into her own family tree, I loved the attention to detail given to Rachel’s research and the little connections that come together to form the bigger picture. Rachel discovers some pretty dark secrets along the way but they will ultimately set her free.
Another aspect of the book I thought was particularly poignant was the contrast to how children played in the 1970s in comparison to today. Back then, children seemed to have more freedom to roam the streets unsupervised and no one thought twice about it. As child abductions became increasingly newsworthy, parents began to curb the movements of their children, often restricting them to their own backyards. And to drive the point home, the author alludes on more than one occasion to the chilling activities of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley which happened not too far from Derbyshire.
In Bitter Chill was an absorbing and quick read with enough appeal for me to want to read more investigations by this particular police team.