Written by Sarah Ward — Family history is a remarkable obsession shared by millions of people in Britain and around the world. They say it’s a pastime more popular than fishing. And it has some remarkable similarities with crime fiction. There are so many mysteries to be solved as you trace your ancestry, and it’s almost forensic in detail. When I launched Your Family Tree magazine for Future Publishing back in 2003, one of the most popular pages was called Skeleton in the Cupboard and it contained stories by genealogists who’d investigated the dark side of their heritage. It’s always baffled me that more crime authors don’t use family history as a theme in their stories.
So hats off to Sarah Ward whose debut novel, In Bitter Chill, pulls in all those birth, marriage and death certificates, local records, genealogical charts and dark family secrets into a police procedural. And it’s all the more powerful for doing so.
It goes a little bit like this. One cold January day in Bampton, a fiction town in the Peak District, an elderly lady is found dead in a hotel room. Not just any elderly lady though, this is Yvonne Jenkins who, back in 1978, lost her only daughter Sophie to a kidnapper. It broke her for good. Rachel Jones, the other girl who was snatched, escaped. Poor Sophie was never found, no culprit was ever caught, and Mrs Jenkins has apparently killed herself.
Investigating the case we have DI Sadler and DC Childs. Sadler is always called by his surname, but Childs is called Connie throughout the book. They connect the woman’s death to the kidnapping cold case and suspect foul play. A couple of days later a now-retired teacher from the school that Sophie and Rachel attended is found strangled near the woods where the girls were taken. Connie and Sadler are even more certain that what’s going on is linked back to that unsolved kidnapping.
Meanwhile, Rachel Jones has grown up to become a genealogist. She researches family trees for wealthy clients who want expert help. She too realises that the deaths are linked to her ordeal years before. Trouble is, she still cannot remember anything about what happened. But she does know that her online family tree has had a spike in web traffic so someone else has been looking at her heritage. Rachel begins her own sleuthing mission.
Illegitimacy, divorce, adoption, changes of names, early deaths, ancestors who mysteriously disappear from the record… these are the brick walls that family historians face. Some of them come into play in this mystery too, and when Connie and Sadler make the link between Rachel’s family history and the kidnapping they have to take up some of the skills genealogists use. Equally, Rachel’s parallel investigation sees her looking for clues like a criminal investigator, interrogating witnesses, and she even confronts a suspect.
Don’t worry if you couldn’t care less about genealogy, though. The book certainly doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. Sarah Ward develops the characters very well. Feisty Connie, troubled Rachel and reserved Sadler all observe the other players in the story in a realistic and honest way. They feel a frisson of attraction here, and sense a threat there – they behave like flesh and blood people. The setting is suitably dark, icy and chilly, and the claustrophobic little town it takes place in reminded me, tonally at least, of that in Code of a Killer.
There are sections where the story is a bit slow, and the tension and momentum the author builds so well fade. The telling switches now and again to flashbacks from the past but the shifting timeline isn’t confusing. Trouble is, when setting the scene or describing past events the author often uses a passive tense. The words ‘had been’ are too common and this mode of storytelling lacks immediacy. Maybe the editor could have tightened this up.
The story concludes not only with cold and brutal violence as a desperate killer tries to get away with it once again, but with some astounding and troubling revelations for at least one of the main characters. People study carry out family history research to find out more about who they are, and sometimes what they find is none-too-pleasant. You’ll really feel for the character who must cope with the past deeds of their kin.
In Bitter Chill is released 30 June. Read our interview with he author here.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars