Book Review and Interview: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

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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.

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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 can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/In-Bitter-Chill-Sarah-Ward/dp/0571320988/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1435655375&sr=1-1

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