Written by Sarah Ward — Bampton, the Derbyshire Peak District, September 2004. Lena Fisher is arrested and confesses to the murder of her husband, Andrew, suffocating him to death with a pillow immediately after they’d slept together. After a short trial, she is sent to prison for 10 years.
It’s now April 2016 and a body is discovered laid out on a stone slab in a decrepit building in the middle of the Derbyshire countryside. What used to be a morgue for World War I soldiers but is now disused and falling apart. The man has been shot to death. His identity is Andrew Fisher, and he’s supposed to have been dead for over a decade.
Lena Fisher is living back in Bampton, sharing what was her parent’s house, Providence Villa, with her younger sister, therapist Kat. So who did Lena murder a decade ago? Detective Constable Connie Childs begins to investigate the strange case. Soon after Lena disappears, to where, Kat has no idea. A boy starts delivering items to Kat, items that connect to the sisters’ past. Lena is sending her a message, but what it is?
Then a second body turns up, that of a local woman with a history of mental problems. She appears to have committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and entering a river- but why?
As the pressure builds Kat turns to one of her patients, ex-soldier Mark, for help. Can they find Lena and solve the puzzle of Andrew Fisher before more people end up dead?
There are three key legs to the story that is A Deadly Thaw. First, and the most strikingly obvious at the outset, is the narrative style. The chapters are very short and punchy, sometimes only a single page, often just two, rarely four to five in length. The description is terse, the narrative whittled down to just the essentials, whether place or character. It’s like a tightly focused spotlight playing upon a large stage. Only what is required there and then is illuminated. Everything else you remain unaware of, until the time is right – or maybe not at all.
Along with the intelligent storyline the characters are strong and very believable. Lena with her troubles, seemingly more bowed by her past than a spell in prison. Kat, struggling to find a place in the world since she lost her sister to some unseen, unknown issue. Connie the investigating police officer who loves her job but has no social life and a crush on an unobtainable married man. They are but a handful of the distinctive players and their interplay is an excellent foil to the story.
However, sometimes the stripped back approach leads to the impression that we are present just for this moment. Their past and future are largely irrelevant if they mean nothing to the story. If you are a reader who like to know the ins and outs of a character and a place, the style may not be to your liking. It is, however, highly effective and compelling.
The prose is brightly intelligent. It is evident significant thought has gone into the selection of the words and their application. The chapter conclusions are pretty much all cliffhangers with a steep drop and jagged rocks at the bottom, compelling you to push on.
The final leg is place. The novel’s host, Bampton, feels like chilly. Derbyshire in the spring is not welcoming. The key locations, such as the WWI mortuary, are unusual and add a further veneer.
It is hard to believe that such an assured novel is only Sarah Ward’s second effort, others must wait in the wings unpublished, surely? There are an increasing number of strong potentials for top five books of 2016 and this is another one. A fascinating and entertaining read from an author who must have a bright future ahead.
We’ve previously reviewed Ward’s debut thriller, In Bitter Chill, here.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars