Sarah’s debut novel will be published next week and I was lucky enough to read a NetGalley review copy. I caught up with Sarah this week and sent her a few questions about the book and about her writing.
The Amazon blurb tells us this …
‘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.’
So, Sarah. Over to you.
1. What made you want to write a novel?
I’ve read crime novels all my life. From Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven when I was a child, Agatha Christie as a teenager and lots of other authors throughout my twenties and thirties. I’d always wanted to write my own book but I needed space and time. I got this when I moved to Greece and started teaching part time.
2. Was it always going to be in the crime genre?
It was always going to be a crime novel. I’ve never really wanted to write anything else although I do think I have one supernatural/ghost story in me that I’d like to try one day.
3. I understand you’ve done professional writing previously. Can you tell us about that?
I wrote professionally in public sector police for a number of years. Mainly briefings and speeches for senior figures. I’ve also been writing online crime fiction reviews for about ten years. But writing fiction is much more fun. Even if it isn’t easy.
4. Do you find writing fiction is different from writing book reviews and doing professional writing?
Definitely. I tend to know what I’m going to write when I write non-fiction. With my novel, I have no idea where the book is head. I like the mystery that I set out at the start of the novel to gradually unravel in my own head and on the page as I write.
5. How did you come up with the plot for In Bitter Chill?
I started with the basic premise that two girls are abducted and only one is later found alive. The other remains perpetually missing. I wanted to explore the effects of this on a small community and how the girl who ‘came back’ might cope as an adult.
6. One of the key themes of the book is ‘secrets’ – can you tell us what interests you about them?
I’m completely fascinated by secrets in general and, in particular, those contained within families. Some people are more secretive than others and they ramifications of keeping something hidden can be huge. And when you hide something, the potential for it to be revealed is great. And if it damages someone, the you have the makings of a crime novel.
7. What was it like writing a book set in Derbyshire when you were living in Greece?
It worked well, writing in the Athenian heat. I was slightly homesick for the English countryside anyway and was imagining myself there. However, for my second book I’ve been living in Derbyshire and that’s also been good, experiencing the season that I’m writing about.
8. How is the second novel going, and can you tell us a little about it?
It’s working title is A Fragile Spring which I like. It has the same detectives as In Bitter Chill but a new central protagonist and a new mystery at its heart.
9. What are your views on the crime fiction genre at present? (Is it changing? For better/worse/neither? New developments? Themes? Issues?)
Good question. I like the idea of a renaissance in British crime fiction (not that it ever went away). There are some excellent British crime authors writing at the moment and lots of exciting books to read at the moment. I personally would like to see more Mediterranean crime novels translated into English.
10. What are your plans for future writing and reading projects?
I’d like to complete a quartet of novels set in my fictional town of Bampton in Derbyshire focusing around the seasons. So summer and autumn novels to follow.
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My thoughts on the book
In Bitter Chill is a police procedural set in Derbyshire.
In 1978 when two girls go missing in Bampton, Derbyshire, on their walk to school only one of them returns. Rachel Jones is discovered on the road near Truscott Woods but Sophie Jenkins is never found. Fast forward thirty years, and Sophie’s mother is found dead in a hotel, having committed suicide.
Rachel can only remember certain parts of the abduction and has tried to put the traumatic episode behind her. She and her mother moved soon after the incident. Now in her thirties, Rachel works as a genealogist and seems well adjusted and happy. At first she doesn’t want to accept that the tragic death of her friend’s mother is anything to do with her but, at the back of her mind, she starts wondering. As questions surface about the kidnapping, she realises that she needs to find out what happened all those years ago and gradually becomes obsessed with doing so. The more she investigates, the more she remembers.
DI Francis Sadler takes charge of the investigation with DC Connie Childs and DS Damian Palmer on his team. When the police start to investigate the suicide, they discover aspects of the original kidnap which bother them. As subsequent events unfold, equally sinister in nature, they question whether the present day crime links back to what happened with Rachel and Sophie. Can the police persuade those involved to give up their secrets or will Rachel get there first and find herself in danger?
I really enjoyed the themes of In Bitter Chill. It is a poignant story about secrets in families and how they can be passed on from one person to another – and one generation to another – and somehow be accepted as the ‘truth’. It reminded me of social crypto-amnesia in social psychology in which people forget who told them what but are nevertheless influenced. What then happens is that people live their lives around the version of the truth they’ve been told. Of course, when they learn that what they’ve believed is false, the architecture of their life is shaken.
The events in the plot invite the reader to consider whether there are different types of secrets and whether it matters. For example, does it make a difference what the motivation is for keeping the secret? The context? Or are all secrets wrong? This is such a fascinating topic as most families have secrets, as do many couples and individuals. Are secrets, then, part of being human?
With the suicide of Sophie’s mother the reader is invited to consider what it might take to push a person to take their life and this is about what happens when secrets are discovered, regardless of whether they are true or not; it’s about the shock of learning something previously not known and of reconciling it. To me, then, In Bitter Chill is an unsettling examination of why people keep secrets, how the secret affects others, what people do to keep them buried, and what happens when they come out.
In Bitter Chill is also about the ways that people cope with tragedy and loss. It is no coincidence that Rachel has become a genealogist, earning her living helping people to trace their ancestors and draw their family trees. As the novel progresses the reader learns about Rachel’s life and family dynamics. The congruence between past and present made me wonder if Rachel’s unconscious mind was at work, piecing together the jigsaw of her life.
I particularly enjoyed the novel’s plot and the very psychological themes mentioned above. I had various ideas about what had happened to Rachel and Sophie, and if and how this might link to the present day crimes. The narrative is well-paced and I was compelled to read on to find out what happened. Not wishing to include spoilers, what I can say is that I thought the explanations and motivations worked well and seemed fitting. The author included a number of twists and revelations which kept changing how things seemed.
I liked the Derbyshire setting and the author’s vivid descriptions brought it to life. The setting, together with the part-70s based plot, give the novel an old fashioned charm. As Rachel and the police set about trying to find out what happened, the solution is achieved by leg-work and solid research. It’s very much a British crime novel in my opinion.
Something else which I think worked well is the juxtaposition of the two time frames. The author gives the reader a lens through which to view life, community, relationships and gender in the 1970s and how these things may have changed over the decades.
I look forward to Sarah’s second novel, and to finding out what happens next for her detectives.
Vicky Newham © 2015