Sunday, December 20, 2015

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward, 2015

Review & Interview

Sadler looked out across the whitening square. “I don't think it was ever closed.”

Detective Inspector Francis Sadler is talking about a three-decade old case in which two young schoolgirls in Bampton, a sleepy town in Derbyshire, England, were abducted. While Rachel Jones was found alive, her friend Sophie Jenkins was presumed dead—murdered by their kidnappers.

Way back then, the police investigation remained inconclusive and the case was closed. Was it really? Apparently not.

More than thirty years later, the unexplained suicide of Sophie’s mother, Yvonne Jenkins, in a hotel room, and the discovery of school teacher Penny Lander’s strangled body in a wooded area, comes back to haunt Rachel, survivor of that terrible event of January 20, 1978.

Rachel, now in her late-thirties, is a genealogist who digs up family secrets and histories, but keeps her own strictly under wraps. She’d like nothing better than to forget her past, the little that she remembers, and get on with her quiet life.

But the thing about the past is that it usually catches up with the present, and the outcome is not always pleasant.

When Detective Inspector Sadler and his diminutive partner, Detective Constable Connie Childs, link the two mysterious deaths to the old case, Rachel is sucked back into her past and forced to confront the sordid truth behind the abduction. She becomes an unwitting collaborator in the rebooted investigation of the crime.

In Bitter Chill—the debut novel of English writer and blogger Sarah Ward—is a compelling and well-written story of family secrets within secrets which, while being dark, is not discomfiting.

The novel is like a trident, a spear with three prongs, where each point holds three key plot elements of the story.

One, in spite of being a child-kidnap victim, Rachel becomes a genealogist when she grows up. She refuses to look over her shoulder but you can tell she is curious to know what happened to her and Sophie that day. Her own independent inquiries help her to come to terms with her mysterious past.

Two, Sarah has handled the subject of child abduction thoughtfully and sensitively, not to mention deceptively, because she doesn’t make it easy for the reader to guess why Rachel and Sophie were kidnapped. I had a few ideas, like child trafficking, for instance.

Three, DI Sadler and DC Childs are like two obsessive archaeologists who dig into the ruins of a thirty-year old case and put the skeleton of the crime together. They operate on the same wavelength in this mild police procedural. I expect to read more of their stories in future.

Sarah has written In Bitter Chill with engaging frankness. The narrative is well-plotted, evenly paced, and meticulously clean. The descriptive nature of the story fits in well with the small-town setting where everyone knows everyone by name. The three main characters, Rachel, Sadler, and Connie, are believable and drawn with ease. Each one works on the case with a quiet determination. The genealogist and the two detectives are bound by a common interest—putting a lid on the case and achieving a sense of closure.

On the flipside, at 310 pages, I thought the novel was a touch too long. There were moments when I wanted the author to cut to the chase, but that was largely because I was keen to see what happened in the end. Frankly, I didn’t see it coming. Another plus for Sarah’s fine debut.


I thank Sarah for sending me a review copy of In Bitter Chill as well as agreeing to do the interview that follows.

‘I became a writer because I'm a reader’

Photograph provided by the author.

Sarah Ward spoke to the 3Cs in an email interview, which is split into three parts: the book, the characters and setting, and the author.


Sarah, how did the idea for In Bitter Chill originate? Was the child abduction and murder based on a true story?
It's based on an experience that happened to me as a child when I was walking to school and a woman attempted to persuade me to get into her car. Of course, I didn't go with her. But it left a feeling of confusion that I wanted to explore in my debut novel.

Did you always want to debut with a police procedural?
I see In Bitter Chill as a mix of police procedural and as a standalone book. Although the police investigation plays a role, I feel the book is primarily about Rachel's own investigation into her past.

What kind of research did you have to do for the subject of your novel?
I did a certain amount of tracing my own family tree and also talked to people about the impact of childhood trauma. I was keen to show that Rachel could come across as aloof but that this would be a response to what happened to her as a child.

Were you influenced by other crime fiction authors while writing In Bitter Chill?
Not while I was writing In Bitter Chill, but I suspect that I've been influenced by every book that I've enjoyed reading.

The narrative is slow but evenly paced for most part of the book and then builds up towards the end. Did you plan it that way or did it flow as you went along?
I suppose the flow was natural. I rewrote the book quite a lot, so it's difficult to assess In Bitter Chill objectively. I didn't want the book to be full of shocks but rather a gradual unfolding of the mystery.


Sarah, I thought two of the three main characters, Detective Constable Connie Childs and kidnap victim and genealogist Rachel Jones, were similar in not too obvious a manner. Who or what inspired their characters?
That's interesting as I didn't intend to make them similar.

I see Connie as impetuous and investigating from the heart. She becomes involved in the story of the girls' disappearance when the rest of the team are lukewarm about the chances of discovering what happened those years ago.

Rachel, I see as more resolute, determined to find out what happened to her rather than it being done by an outside agency. She also comes across as slightly cold due to her self-sufficiency. Neither character is based on a real-life person. They developed during the writing.

Is Bampton, the small fictional town in Derbyshire, based on a town you knew well, or maybe, grew up in? 

Bampton isn't based on a real-life town but I wanted it to embody the sort of place where I grew up. There was one high school and one doctor's surgery. You would walk down the street and see someone you knew. It's the type of place where secrets can exist for generations and, at the same time, where everyone knows each other's business.

There is a subtle hint of attraction between Detective Inspector Francis Saddler and Connie Childs. Can we expect them to come together in future?

Who knows. I suspect Connie's path in life won't be a smooth one.

In spite of being an excellent genealogist, why is Rachel Jones reluctant to delve into her own past?

I think people are capable of drawing a distinction between their personal and private lives. I'm also drawn to how people can unwittingly choose professions that have a resonance with their own past.

How real are family secrets in the small towns of England?

I think every family has its secrets. But I think when families live in close proximity to each other, the potential for tension and conflict can be greater.


Sarah, can you take us through your journey as a writer and an author?

I became a writer because I'm a reader. Crime fiction has always been my love but I do read other genres, particularly literary fiction and poetry. I started writing when I was living in Athens, Greece. In Bitter Chill was my second attempt at a novel. Both Sadler and Connie were in the first novel I tried but I decided I liked the characters better than the plot, so I had a second go!

What does writing mean to you? How do you describe the experience?

Umm...hard work! I wouldn't say it comes that easily to me although I have moments when the words flow out. But I am diligent and I try to write something every day. And I'm a conscientious editor and am happy to keep rewriting something until I like the ‘feel’ of it.

Where, when, and how do you write?

Usually in my house although sometimes at a cafe. And I do like to have at least one intense burst during a book's first draft. Mornings are my most productive time, afternoons are hopeless and I try again in the evenings.

How long did it take you to write In Bitter Chill?

About two years with long gaps in between.

What can your readers expect after your brilliant debut?

Thank you! I have just finished the second book in the series which will be called A Fragile Spring. It's coming out in the UK next September. It will feature the same police characters with a new female protagonist and a new mystery.

What books have influenced your writing and who are some of your favourite authors?

No individual book. My favourite crime writers are Agatha Christie, PD James and Ruth Rendell.

Do you have a specific time and place for reading?

Whenever I get a chance. Always in bed and on trains.

Finally, Sarah, what is your advice to budding authors?

Finish what you start and then make it better. I don't think there's any magic formula. Most of the best authors I know are extremely hard working.

Thank you, Sarah.

Reviews by my blog friends and acquaintances

Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Name?

Bernadette at Reactions to Reading

Rebecca Bradley at Murder Down to a Tea 

Moira Redmond at Clothes in Books


  1. Thanks for the review and interview. I found them interesting, like the book.

    1. Oscar, you're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it. I liked the book too. The characters were interesting.

  2. Great review, Prashant, and thanks for the interview with Sarah. In Bitter Chill is one of my favorite reads of the year. You brought up some interesting points about the book.

    1. Tracy, thank you. It was certainly one of my unusual reads this year. I don't read too many books with this theme. I forgot to link your own fine review here and I'm going to remedy that right away.

  3. Enjoyed this. I like books in which the past works forward into the future.

    1. Charles, thank you. Sarah has worked the past well into the present in a way that the story does not lose out on the contemporariness.

  4. What a lovely post, Prashant! And a really interesting interview, for which thanks to both of you.

    1. Margot, thank you! Sarah was very generous with her answers.

  5. Good review, Prashant, and excellent interview.

  6. I'll be reading this one during the holidays and am reall ylooking forward to it - thanks Prashant.

    1. Sergio, I'm sure you won't be disappointed. I'd like to know your views on the book.

  7. Lovely blogpost featuring the two of you! As you know, I really enjoyed this book too, as well as being very proud of our blogging friend being so successful.

    1. Thank you, Moira. Not me as much as Sarah and her debut novel. I'm happy for her too. I read more than a dozen fine reviews of IN BITTER CHILL.

  8. I really enjoyed In Bitter Chill. What a great interview following the review as well. I agree with Sarah, I think to be a writer, you really do need to read. I find it so strange that any writer says they don't.
    This was great, thank you both!

    1. Thank you, Rebecca. I had a lot of fun doing the interview. Sarah was amazing in her responses. I liked the book too and I hope there will be others in the Sadler-Childs series.