BLURB: Bampton, Derbyshire, January 1978. Two girls go missing: Rachel Jones returns, Sophie Jenkins is never found. Thirty years later: Sophie Jenkins’s mother commits suicide.
Rachel Jones has tried to put the past behind her and move on with her life. But news of the suicide re-opens old wounds and Rachel realises that the only way she can have a future is to finally discover what really happened all those years ago.
This is a story about loss and family secrets, and how often the very darkest secrets are those that are closest to you.
Sarah, as most of you will probably know, is one of the stalwarts of the blogging community. She was one of the first people to leave a comment on my blog, which is such an amazing thing to see – to know that someone out there has read your words and it might be worth carrying on with this blogging lark. Her own blog, Crimepieces, is one where, for me, the recommendations are spot-on, particularly when it comes to Scandinavian fiction, and she is a judge for the prestigious Petrona Prize for translated Scandinavian/Icelandic fiction.
I was delighted to hear Sarah had written a book and (the important bit! – as probably a fair proportion of bloggers have written a book, or part of one) was getting it published – by Faber & Faber, no less! I wasn’t hugely surprised, though, as you can tell from her blog she has a talent for writing (there are at least four bloggers I’m aware of who I think capable of writing a book; one specifically, and when I told him that, several weeks later he confessed he had a book deal, too, and had been dying to ‘fess up, but would then have to kill me. Obviously.)
Anyway, enough blogging chat, and to the book. In Bitter Chill is set in Derbyshire, in a small market town on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District called Bampton, which I’d assumed was an invented name but Google maps tells me it’s real (it sounds picture perfect lovely, actually, ideal for a walking holiday, and is a place Sarah clearly knows well.) The story begins in 1978, with the kidnapping of two 10-year-old schoolgirls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins. Rachel manages to escape, but was drugged and is traumatised, and remembers very little of her experience. Sophie, however, is never seen again, with the presumption being that she was murdered. Thirty years on and Rachel still lives in the area, having returned after uni, and works for herself as a genealogist, researching peoples’ family trees.
On the thirtieth anniversary of Sophie’s disappearance, her mother, Yvonne Jenkins, books herself into a local hotel and commits suicide using Valium and vodka. After her suicide, the DI, Francis Sadler, orders another look at the original investigation, to see if anything was missed, or if fresh eyes would benefit it, and also to answer the question of why Sophie’s mother waited exactly 30 years, still living in the same house in case Sophie came home, before committing suicide. Bizarrely, I thought, he told them not to go too deep into the original case files, but DC Connie Childs – who very quickly became my favourite character – was soon into everything she could find connected with Rachel and Sophie’s childhood, convinced the reason for their targeting – the police believed these two girls, or one of them at least, was deliberately targeted – could be found in the past, possibly well before 1978. Connie’s colleague, DS Damian Palmer, is soon due to go on leave to get married, but seems stressed and unhappy, rather than looking forward to it, but we don’t learn why – hopefully the follow-up will fill us in on that little mystery. There’s a little tension between Connie and Damian to be Sadler’s favourite detective, but they aren’t overly competitive. Connie may have the lower rank, but she’s local, unlike Palmer, which gives her great advantage in knowing who’s who in the area, and where everything is, what I was before – the sort of things you taken when you live somewhere all your life. Not usually useful, but in policing, it could be.
Two things struck me when I’d read In Bitter Chill that I really liked. The first was the nostalgia for things from the late 70s, like these awful knee length socks we wore, with lacy patterns up the side (probably from Woolworths!) I think Austin Allegros got a mention too! The other was that pretty much all the violence took place off the page – there were no graphic descriptions of it, or of post mortems, and I was surprised how refreshing I found that. The book was basically a puzzle to be solved, not unlike a Golden Age murder.
There aren’t many father figures in the book, which would definitely, where I lived, be something that was spoken about. (My upbringing was so sheltered, when my best friend told me when I was nine that her parents may be getting divorced, I had to ask her what it meant.)
Sarah has a wonderful eye for the surrounding Derbyshire Peak countryside, and her love of it is easy to see. It actually made me want to visit the area and explore! I found the weather really well-described, and this description added atmosphere, as well as a touch of menace, to the investigation, as it got colder and snowier, and we moved towards a conclusion.
As the case heads towards some kind of resolution, with Rachel getting flashes of memories from the original kidnapping, a couple of excellent red herrings are flung in, just to confuse things (I fell for one, as I suspect lots of others did too – just maybe not the same one!) This was a wonderful debut, and I’m delighted for Sarah it’s doing so well. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d definitely recommend you get your hands on this book, by a fresh new voice on the crime fiction scene.
And I’ll be looking forward to getting to know some of the characters better in Sarah’s follow-up, A Fragile Spring.
I’d like to thank Sarah for sending me a copy of the book.