When three-year-old identical twin Coco goes missing during a family celebration, there is a media frenzy. Her parents are rich and influential, as are the friends they were with at their holiday home by the sea.
But what really happened to Coco during her father's 50th birthday weekend?
Set across two weekends - the first when Coco goes missing and the second, at the funeral of Coco's father, where at last, the darkest of secrets will be revealed...
The Darkest Secret opens with a promising prologue. An email regarding the hunt for a missing three-year-old girl followed by a number of witness statements relating to a weekend away in 2004 when the girl went missing. The statements, from a range of characters - including the girl’s former nanny, the builder next door and some of the guests - give a confusing but intriguing picture of the parents of the missing girl and their contemporaries. The rest of the book, however, is not half as compelling or interestingly structured.
The main narrative of The Darkest Secret revolves around both a disappearance and a death. The disappearance of three-year-old Coco in 2004 is told in series of point-of-view chapters of people at the weekend retreat. Twelve years later, preparations for the funeral of Sean Jackson, Coco’s father, is narrated by Camilla, or Mila, one of his older daughters from a former marriage who was fifteen at the time of her step-sister’s disappearance. Sean’s death, brings the players from the 2004 disappearance back together and revelations lurk just below the carefully managed surface.
Domestic thrillers of this type often run on nasty, narcissistic people and The Darkest Secret is full of them. Most of the characters are self indulgent, self-important, loathsome and as the reader keeps being reminded narcissistic. Even without knowing that there is a tragedy in the offing, just the way they treat each other and their children over the weekend is enough to know it will all end in tears. In fact, the mystery is really just used a driver to highlight just how odious these characters can get and the impact that this has on their lives and their children many years down the track. Overall, both individually and as a group, they are fairly uninteresting.
Alex Marwood, the pen name of an English journalist, has won a couple of awards, including an Edgar award for The Wicked Girls. This book has a very journalistic feel - Marwood tends to tell rather than show, particularly in the first half of the novel. Point-of-view chapters are used so that characters can reveal particularly obvious things about themselves and their relationships.
This is by no means a page turning thriller. Large slabs of exposition and relationship entanglements between the guests at the 2004 bacchanal get in the way of any real build-up of tension. Such build-up that there is pays off to some extent towards the end where full plot is revealed and the depths of some of the character’s personality disorders is allowed to shine. But these revelations do not provide much satisfaction as most readers will have worked them out well before, given all of the sign-posts and earlier exposition. And the characters are not interesting enough to counterbalance what is otherwise a fairly lacklustre plot.