Book Review and Interview: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward


A compelling début novel puts Derbyshire on the crime fiction map.

On a January morning in 1978 two schoolgirls walking to school are abducted. Rachel Jones manges to free herself from the captor’s clutches and is found a few hours later. Sophie Jenkins is never seen again.

Decades later the missing girl’s mother books into a Derbyshire hotel room and kills herself on the anniversary of the kidnapping. Yvonne Jenkins has spent thirty seven years mourning for the child who never returned home. Paralysed by grief and not knowing for certain what happened to her daughter on that fateful day in 1978 she has been incarcerated by a torment that can never be wiped away. A routine police enquiry establishing cause of death links the disappearance of Sophie Jenkins to her mother’s apparent suicide.

Matters of the past are never far from Rachel Jones’ mind. Now a genealogist she has forged a career digging into other family’s secrets while burying the memory of what happened on that fateful day. The mystery of what happened to her friend has dogged Rachel and events from 1978 are raked over once again as the police connect Yvonne’s death with the kidnapping.

Praised by some of the biggest names in contemporary crime fiction, Sarah Ward’s début is a page-turning police procedural filled with dark secrets and complex puzzles. Long-term blogger and Petrona Award judge she eats, sleeps, and breathes crime fiction. Her affection for the genre is written into every carefully constructed page.

Enthralling, intelligent, and profoundly moving, In Bitter Chill effectively combines a vivid picture of a now lost era when parents thought it was safe to let their children roam free in the countryside with a harder-edged age in which the risk of abduction and abuse is ever present.

Signalling the birth of Derbyshire Noir, Ward’s début is a searing mystery that will delight fans of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Entranced by In Bitter Chill we spoke to Sarah Ward about the influence of Nordic Noir and how she researched the book’s period sections.


As a Petrona judge how does the Scandianvian school of crime writing differ from its English equivalent?

I think that English crime writing is as diverse as its Scandinavian equivalent. There are crime authors writing hard-edged urban police procedurals, domestic and psychological thrillers and intricately plotted historical whodunits. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I also like to think that the quality of books coming out of this country is of an equally high standard of those from Scandinavia. There are some differences, of course. Writing duos, although not unheard of, are less prevalent here. Landscape is important but less a focus that books from, say, Iceland. But Britain has an excellent crime writing tradition and it’s still going strong.

Did exposure to Nordic novels influence choices you made while writing In Bitter Chill?

Not consciously when I first started writing. Rather, I wanted to work through various events from my past and write a book that followed in the tradition of classic crime writers. But I became interested in the role that landscape plays in a narrative and how certain events couldn’t really happen anywhere else. I also like the focus Scandi crime gives to the impact of traumas on the victim. It’s a powerful message that trauma doesn’t just disappear after a crime has been solved. And I think that some of the best Scandinavian crime writers: Johan Theorin, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Henning Mankell recognise this.

In Bitter Chill’s narrative structure involves two timelines. For the 1970s sections did you rely on your memory of the decade?

I did very little research in relation to the 1970s as those passages are written from a child’s eyes and I was the same age in that decade. It feels like a time of innocence and yet some horrific child kidnappings took place in that period. So I relied on my own recollections as I wanted to evoke the period through memory and emotion than fact checking.

In addition to contrasting on two decade’s styles of policing, are the 1970s and 2015 sections a reflection on how crime fiction has evolved?

I think that crime fiction has changed substantially between these two periods. Plots have have become more complex with often two or three storylines sharing the narrative, books are generally longer and I think the writing has largely become more sophisticated. Crime fiction no longer easily fits into a ‘genre’ classification as writers reject some of the old truisms and extend the genre in exciting new ways. I’m not sure that this is reflected in my book. If it is, it’s unconscious!

If In Bitter Chill was adapted for TV or film what tracks would you like to be featured on the soundtrack?

That’s an excellent but really difficult question to answer. I find music to be a very personal preference and what I’d like to see featured, isn’t necessarily what would suit the medium. I’m happy to leave this sort of thing to the professionals. Writing fiction is my medium and I’ll happily admit to knowing very little about TV and film production. Can I sidestep the question by saying what I listened to while I was writing the book? Two works that predominated were Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Holst’s The Planets, in particular ‘Mars the Bringer of War’. I like the sense of impending doom in both of these pieces of music.

In Bitter Chill is published by Faber & Faber.


Film Review: Life in a Fishbowl


Three fractured lives criss-cross in Baldvin Zophoniasson’s second feature film.

Considered by Icelandic newspaper Fréttabladid to be “The best Icelandic film in history,” Zophoniasson’s sophomore cinematic outing was an Icelandic box office smash. Vanquishing high-profile American competition it was crowned the country’s most successful film of 2014.

Praised by American Director Darren Aronofsky, Life in a Fishbowl was selected as Iceland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars. It has been the recipient of numerous domestic and international awards. Audience response to screenings at North American and European festivals has seen it rapidly earning a reputation as one the decade’s most significant Icelandic films.


Inspired by true stories, Baldvin Zophoniasson’s follow up to the coming of age drama Jitters is a is a supremely well directed multi-layered drama filled with complex and sensitively drawn character portraits. An elegy to lost souls modelled on Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. A trio of frustrated and thwarted individuals weave in and out of each other’s lives with startling consequences in the years immediately prior to the financial crisis.

Noted writer Mori (Thorsteinn Bachmann – The Deep, The Press) has spent the past two decades lost in a haze of alcohol. The submission of an autobiographical novel to his publisher brings to an end a lengthy creative fallow period. Addressing his darkest demons, the book is a confessional tome. Praised by his editor as a return to form it’s a tale that has been waiting twenty years to be told.

Eik (Hera Hilmarsdottir – Da Vinci’s Demons) is a nursery school assistant struggling to single-handedly raise a diabetic child. Her salary doesn’t meet the cost of rent and food forcing Eik to moonlight as an escort.


Each day Mori drunkenly staggers to Eik’s workplace, stopping to gaze at the nearby lake and chats with her daughter. Mother and disgraced writer recognise that they are a  pair of damaged souls and strike up a friendship that will force each to exorcise long-buried traumas.

Former footballer Solvi (Thor Kristjansson – Dracula Untold) works for a rapacious financial institution which recklessly pursues profit and is profligate with its expenses. Eager to scale the corporate ladder he manoeuvres around shady executives while attempting to complete a close property redevelopment deal. The seemingly committed family man is intoxicated by the wild abandon offered by a Florida junket and sleeps with Eik little suspecting that she works at his daughter’s nursery.


A mature and engaging snapshot of personal destinies stunted by painful memories, denial, and an uncaring society. Baldvin Zophoniasson and co-writer Birgir Örn Steinarsson’s screenplay is an intricately patterned mosaic that entwines complex characters with a commentary on the country’s recent economic hardships.

Life in a Fishbowl is the latest film to prove that the Iceland’s motion picture industry is currently enjoying a creative renaissance. Compelling and thought provoking, the movie deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Life in a Fishbowl is available to rent or buy at Amazon Video

DVD Review: The Spider


A host of familiar faces star in an impressive post-war noir mystery series.

In 1949 Denmark was a traumatised nation unable to conceal the visible scars of a brutal occupation by Nazi forces that had killed over 3,000 people. Liberation ushered in an era of shortages and rationing. Struggling to rebuild its infrastructures, the fragile government appeared to be impotent when confronted with the black market economy.


Left-leaning journalist Bjarne Maden (Jakob Cedergren) is an idealist eager to forge a career as a crime reporter. Unwavering in his belief in the press’ power to effect significant social change he covers stories which highlight cracks in the battered country’s system. Son of a noted union leader he uses the printed word to continue his father’s work standing up for the marginalised and persecuted. Championing social justice, Bjarne is striving to craft a new Denmark untainted by criminality.

A tip-off about organised crime leads the intrepid reporter on a trail which uncovers a web corruption that infects the upper stratums of society. Ignoring cautionary advice from the newspaper’s senior crime writer, Bjarne embarks on a self-appointed crusade to expose the toxic tendrils of lawlessness contaminating Copenhagen and bring the criminals to task.

Although the process of rebuilding Denmark is underway, the country remains divided along lines fought during the war. Bjarne’s brother Ole (Lars Mikkelsen) returns to Copenhagen. after several years in America. Enthused by time spent living in New York and flush with dollars he plans to open a jazz club. Ole’s reinvention is viewed with suspicion by those who are unable to forgive him for being a Nazi sympathiser during the occupation.


First broadcast in 2000, The Spider is loosely based on the true story of journalists Anders B. Norgaard and Poul Dalgaard’s dogged attempts to expose a criminal network and highlight the police’s complicity in a black market economy built on smuggling, stolen goods, drugs, and prostitution.

Bjarne Henriksen is perfectly cast as an ice-cool racketeer who controls the crime syndicate with an iron glove. A Danish Al Capone type figure based on the real-life criminal Svend Aage Hasselstrøm who rose to prominence during World War Two and maintained a vice-like grip on Copenhagen’s underworld for eight years.


An era of lawlessness and crushed hopes is meticulously recreated in a multi-layered and engrossing high-quality series that traces Denmark’s attempts to expunge the corruption which threatened to strangle the post-war administration.

Director Ole Christan Madsen’s affection for Film Noirs shines through in an exemplary production which doffs a fedora to classic crime films of the 1940s and ’50s. Cinematography, costuming and set design work in tandem to create the sense of a time when gangsters held entire cities under their command.

Complex and engaging, The Spider is an arresting drama packed with an array of now well-known Scandinavian actors at the top of their game.

The Spider is available to order from Amazon.