In 2007, while on vacation in Portugal’s Praia da Luz with her British parents, younger twin siblings, family friends and their young children, Madeleine MacCann, nine days short of her fourth birthday, disappeared in the dead of the night. The children had been asleep in their ground-floor holiday home when the adults left for dinner at a restaurant 50 m away, checking on them through the evening. Among the most high-profile cases of the decade, at one time, the investigations pinned suspicion on Madeleine’s parents for a while, even though there was no conclusive evidence to point to their complicity.
London-based journalist Serena Mackesy, who writes under the pseudonym Alex Marwood, found the premise for The Darkest Secret in the case. Three-year-old Coco and Ruby Jackson, identical twins, accompany their parents Claire and Sean to Bournemouth for Sean’s 50th birthday celebration. Joining them are some of Sean’s oldest friends — power couple Robert and Maria Gavila, lawyer and PR executive, with Robert’s teenaged daughter from his first marriage, Simone, and their son Joe; politician Charlie Clutterbuck and his wife Imogen. There’s also James Orizio, a Harley Street doctor, and his partner, interior decorator Linda Innes, and her children from an earlier relationship.
The cracks are already showing in Claire and Sean’s relationship and in the debauched weekend party, it’s apparent that this marriage is on its last legs. A successful property developer, Sean is also a serial womaniser and has already moved on to his next conquest, Linda, while gawky, awkward Simone, all of 15, is smitten by him. After a fight on the night of the party at a restaurant close by, Claire leaves for London, leaving the children behind. In the morning, Coco is discovered missing, never to be found again.
Fifteen years later, at Sean’s funeral, Camilla, one of his daughters from his first marriage, and Ruby, the twin who survived, wonder what had actually happened. The book alternates between two terse time frames — the weekend when Coco disappeared and that of Sean’s funeral — piecing together a chain of events that arrives at the heart of the mystery.
Marwood’s writing is atmospheric without being overtly dramatic. One of the hallmarks of a good psychological thriller is its cast. Marwood is splendid at drawing up characters — the motley bunch is a glib, self-absorbed lot that you’d be hard-pressed to like, and the fractured Jackson family is seething with resentment, immorality, anger and regret. They play each other, much like Nick and Amy in Gillian Flynn’s very popular Gone Girl, and they do it with aplomb.
Even as a jaded reader of crime fiction, I found the book utterly compelling, absolutely unputdownable.