The Darkest Secret

DarkestSecret300Written by Alex Marwood — Alex Marwood’s latest domestic noir novel is one of those ones where you’ll definitely feel like screaming, “He’s behind you!” like an overexcited child at a pantomime. There were also times when I wanted to grab a character by the arm and ask, “Can’t you see what’s going on?”

But this is print not popular theatre and you have to keep your thoughts to yourself unless you’re happy to receive strange looks on the morning commute.

The tale begins in 2004 as a bunch of old friends gather to celebrate the 50th birthday of property developer Sean Jackson at a posh house in an even posher location. This is Sandbanks, near Bournemouth. It’s one of the most expensive and exclusive areas in Britain and the folks who are staying in the newly-refurbished house are ready to party, party, party.

Unfortunately they’ve had to bring the kids along and their hedonistic plans look scuppered when the nanny gives notice and walks out, leaving them in the lurch with a bunch of young children to look after. What could possibly go wrong?

The unthinkable happens when one of the children disappears, never to be seen again. She is three-year-old twin Coco, from Sean’s second marriage to much-put-upon Claire,  and as one of the birthday gathering also happens to be a top media publicist, her disappearance is soon turned into a heartfelt press appeal that is spread far and wide. The story goes global, bringing back memories of the Madeline McCann case.

Jump to the present day and Sean Jackson, now on wife number four, is found dead, handcuffed to a bed, in a glitzy London hotel. The Jacksons take the phrase ‘dysfunctional family’ to another level and the fact that wives number one and two and his eldest daughter have no intention of attending Sean’s funeral speaks volumes. Wife three is dead and it is left to second-eldest daughter Mila to mend bridges and reach out to Ruby, the stepsister she hasn’t seen since Coco disappeared. After a shaky start, the girls bond and create an oasis of almost-normality in the skewed, oddball world that surrounded Sean and his old friends – known to Mila and her sister India as Jackson Associates.

And a formidable bunch they are too. Time has changed each one of them, but the unsolved mystery of Coco’s disappearance casts a long shadow and the former happy-go-lucky gang of pals begin to show something of their true colours. Her two previous novels have cemented Alex Marwood’s reputation as a consummate caster of convoluted plot strands – and this book is no exception. There are dead ends aplenty as she leads the reader up many a beautifully landscaped garden path.

Trouble is, I had it worked out from about halfway through. True, there were moments when I began to doubt myself, but the dramatic final reveal had lost a little of its power for me by the time I reached it. The Wicked Girls is still among my favourite crime novels of recent years, but I felt The Darkest Secret lacked the sheer pull-you-in-and-never-let-go tension of that astonishing debut.

If you like the sound of this, try The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne.

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CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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