Written by Sarah Ward — Detective Inspector Frances Sadler receives a phone call late one night. There’s been a fire over at a large house on the other side of Bampton, a rural town in the Derbyshire Peaks. The constable on the other end of the line can’t say much, just that there have been fatalities and a senior investigating officer is needed.
Sadler needs some help so he calls DC Connie Childs. It’s six months since the events in A Deadly Thaw which led Childs to take enforced sick leave. She’s back, but her mental health, already precarious, seems worse than ever. She’s suffering with insomnia and is withdrawn from her colleagues. Her previously close relationship with DS Damian Palmer is on the rocks too – he’s decided to transfer away and a move is imminent. All of which means Sadler must lean on Childs more than he’d like.
When the pair arrive at the house it’s worse than they’d imagined. An apparent murder suicide, the house gutted by the flames. A young child, Charlie, and his father Peter Winson were both killed by a blunt instrument before the house was set alight. Shockingly the crime appears to have been perpetrated by the mother, Francesca, who then hung herself, her silhouette obvious to those outside the building.
There was an age gap of around 30 years between Peter and Francesca and this was his second marriage. Peter had older, grown up children, Julia and George, and a successful business but he’d largely retired, selling part of the company to George and living off the proceeds. Childs interviews the Winsons’ neighbours and the older siblings, discovering that Peter was a less than caring father. Then news comes through that Francesca was pregnant at the time of her death.
Childs also uncovers the fact that Peter’s first wife disappeared in mysterious circumstances forty years ago. She seemingly walked out of the shop she ran, leaving a notice on the door that she’d return on ten minutes, but she never did. Connie is convinced the cases are linked, but Sadler less so. Connie, in her usual single-minded style, forges ahead anyway, putting her on a collision course with her boss and the Winsons’ and maybe ending her career as a police officer…
All of Sarah Ward’s books have explored family and relationships. Over the course of her three novels she has continued to develop that theme and in In Bitter Chill has produced her strongest work to date. The chapters are short and to the point. Often just a handful of pages. They make the point and then move on which keeps the pace of the novel trotting forward quickly. Make no mistake though, terse story telling doesn’t mean a stunted story, just the opposite. Ward clearly puts a lot of effort into constructing her story arcs.
Another significant strength to the writing is an excellent feeling of place. The moody Derbyshire peaks hem the reader into Bampton, it’s as if nowhere else in the world exists. The prose is beautifully immersive. Connie Childs is a very interesting character and like many protagonists in police procedurals she is damaged. The nearest comparison is probably Harry Bingham’s DCI Fiona Griffiths (read our review of The Dead House). She is the fulcrum around which this story revolves.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars