Searching around for something to read over last Christmas I was fortunate to discover not one but three crime authors all relatively new to the game and each of them not only good storytellers but also excellent writers. As the two don’t always go together, this was a bonus. Two of them, Matthew Frank and Rob McCarthy, were writing about the experiences of army personnel returning to civilian life, the third, Sarah Ward, offered a police procedural set in Derbyshire, which, although I am better acquainted with the Dark Peak than the actual area she is writing about, is still somewhere I know well. Through In Bitter Chill and later A Deadly Thaw, I got to know and like the tightly strung DI Francis Sadler and his headstrong DC, Connie Childs. In this, their third outing, they are faced with an inquiry which asks them and the reader to challenge various assumptions about family life, including the strength of the love of a woman for her children.
When the local Fire Service are called out to a house fire they find the bodies of Peter, Francesca and Charlie Winson in the ruins of their home. However, it rapidly becomes clear that all three died before the fire took hold and it appears that Francesca has killed her husband and small child before laying the fire and then taking her own life. Connie, recently returned to work after injury, argues against this on the grounds that most familial murder suicides are perpetrated by the father and that it is very rare that a mother would take the life of her child. Sadler is not convinced. The case is complicated by the fact that Peter Winson was considerably older than his wife and has an earlier family, a son George and a daughter Julia, from his first marriage to Elizabeth, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when the children were still pre-teen. Sadler wants to concentrate just on the current case, Connie is convinced that the two tragedies must be linked.
My question (although it’s a question to life, not to the author because I know such things do happen) is why one, let alone two, women ever married Peter Winson in the first place. He is one of those nasty individuals who must have everything their own way and who constantly puts down others, including their own family, with nasty snide remarks. Whether George has grown up like him because of his own childhood experiences or whether it runs in families we can’t tell, but he really isn’t much better. Julia, on the other hand, is still haunted by her mother’s disappearance and has never quite given up hope that she may still be alive. This second loss, of her father and much loved half-brother, is made all the worse by the fact that someone appears to be watching her home after dark and when an attempt is made to poison her beloved dog, Bosco, it is clear that her safety is under threat as well.
Sadler and Connie clash badly over this case. Both of them get an idea lodged in their minds and refuse to explore the other’s point of view. But, as their boss, Superintendent Llewelyn, says to Sadler, it is better to see some honest mistakes than rigid certainty and one of the questions which this novel explores is the point at which such certainty of one’s own ‘rightness’, one’s own entitlement, passes over into an obsession which denies the rights of others.
This is not a novel with nice pat answers. It certainly isn’t one with a ‘happy’ ending, or even an ending where you are left convinced that justice has been done. And it definitely challenges a number of easy assumptions about family relationships. Like the best of crime fiction, it looks at the society out of which it grows and forces the reader to question rather than endorse those assumptions. Crime Fiction should not be about easy answers and Ward is showing herself to be amongst the best when it comes to reflecting the hard truths about the world in which we live.