In Bitter Chill is a first novel by Sarah Ward, best known hitherto for her excellent blog Crime Pieces. The book is published by Faber, which is in itself a hallmark of quality, and I must say that I think it's a very satisfying book, judged by any standards, let alone those applicable to a debut. I should also say that Sarah is someone I've known and liked for several years, but I would not enthuse about this novel in the way that I do unless I genuinely found it to my taste.
The story is set in a fictional Derbyshire town, Bampton. Derbyshire is a wonderful county, one I know and love (I've also had the mixed blessing of supporting the county's cricket team since I was young; this has at least proved character-building, given the team's propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory...) Until now, Stephen Booth, a very capable author indeed, has been the leading writer of Derbyshire crime, but Sarah's writing is in the same league. They both produce well-crafted traditional mysteries with credible police officers and good descriptions of landscape..
I'm conscious that one has to be wary of comparing one writer with another, but the other comparison that did cross my mind when reading this book was with Ann Cleeves. Ann has a gift for combing her well-plotted mysteries with sound evocation of character and place, a gift that amazingly was long under-estimated before the massive success of Vera and Shetland caused her to receive her well-deserved international acclaim.I don't expect Sarah to have to wait as long for widespread recognition. She is, like Ann, someone whose work demonstrates an understanding of human frailty, but also a good deal of compassion, a combination that is very appealing to many readers.
The plot involves a "cold case" in a cold climate. Back in 1978, two girls went missing, and only one returned. A death in the present day causes the local police to start reconsidering what happened. The kidnapping of the girls might seem reminiscent of Brady and Hindley at work, but the storyline is very different from the tragedy of the Moors Murders, though it is certainly not without bleakness. A really good read.