England’s rural Derbyshire is the setting for Sarah Ward’s debut mystery, In Bitter Chill, introducing introspective DI Francis Sadler, DC Connie Childs and their team. It promises to be the best of police procedurals, where the mystery is strong and setting as stark as the killings being investigated.

Thirty years ago two young children were kidnapped on their way to school. Rachel Jones was found wandering hours later, but her companion, Sophie Jenkins, never surfaced and no trace of her body was ever found.

On the 30th anniversary of what is surely Sophie’s death, her mother commits suicide, which reopens the cold case in hopes the original team overlooked something that might lead to resolution of the case.

Rachel has become a genealogist and a local history expert who lives quietly and would continue to do so but this reopening of the case on the heels of Mrs. Jenkins suicide disrupts the peace Rachel has created, bringing reporters at her door. Worst of all are her efforts to remember details of that horrific day, when the girls were coaxed by a woman into a car with disastrous results.

Then a former teacher of Rachel’s is found strangled in the same woods where the girls went missing, and suddenly no one in the area feels safe, least of all, Rachel Jones. As Sadler and Connie investigate the new and old cases, they uncover secrets long kept buried as the threat rises.

Ward does a nice job of letting the setting become another character, and gives us enough of the inner lives of Sadler and Connie, as well as Connie’s closest competition in the team, the almost-married Palmer, to make readers look for the next installment of this team. Destined to be a series readers will seek out.

Auntie M had the pleasure this past week to meet with Sarah Ward at the Bouchercon Mystery Convention. A blogger for Crimepieces, Ward’s love of crime fiction kept us talking about our favorites and how In Bitter Chill came to be written:

Sarah Ward: I was living and Greece at the time I wrote the book and having a bout of homesickness. It was incredibly hot, and I kept myself cool by thinking of the Derbyshire winter. It seemed natural to use that area, but Stephen Booth has stolen a lot of the popular places! So I made up a fictional town surrounded by the real ones and that’s worked well. I think being at some remove helped me write it, too, although having lived there I obviously know the area well. In the winter the tourists have gone and it’s deserted and feels isolated but very beautiful.

Auntie M: That certainly comes through, the majesty of the area as well as its bleak isolation. What about the sequel, which I hear is written and will be out next year? What it easier or tougher to write?

SW: I was back in Derbyshire by then and it seemed a bit harder to remove myself from the area as I wrote. It’s such a lovely area, with the Peak District National Park owned by private landowners. I’m quite proud of the fact that it was the first national park, this jewel of nature surrounded by South Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham, great industrial areas.

AM: After you chose the setting, what prompted this particular storyline?

SW: I had a very similar incident happen to me when I was twelve and walking to school. A woman stopped and asked me to post a letter for her, which I did, and then wanted to drive me the rest of the way to school. I didn’t get in her car, but she was persistent until she finally drove off. I never told my parents about it, either. But years later I wondered what would have happened if I HAD gotten into that car . . . so I made the story revolve around two younger girls who had gotten into the car with the woman.

AM: Was there a kind of release in writing it down, exploring that episode?

SW: To a degree, but the most surprising thing about exposing secrets, which the book revolves around, is that people come up to me all the time at signings and tell me their secrets, completely without prompting. It’s usually family secrets of some kind, so I suppose the book has struck a chord with them.

AM: What about the relationships of Sadler, Connie and Palmer?

SW: I have a story arc planned, oh yes, but I’m not giving away secrets except to say there’s a surprise there–you’ll just have to read the next one to see what’s happening!