Penguin Books, 2016, 390 pages
Real estate mogul Sean Jackson is throwing himself a splashy 50th birthday party, but trouble starts almost immediately: His ex-wife has sent his teenage daughters to the party without telling him; his current wife has fired the nanny; and he's finding it difficult to sneak away to his mistress. Then something truly terrible happens: one of his three-year-old twins goes missing. No trace of her is ever found. The attendees of the party, nicknamed the Jackson Associates by the press, become infamous overnight. Twelve years later, Sean is dead. The Jackson Associates assemble for the funeral, together for the first time since that fateful weekend. Soon the barbed comments and accusations are flying. By the end of the weekend, one will be dead. And one of Sean's daughters will make a shocking discovery.
Alex Marwood's third novel is once again about the horrors of entitlement combined with narcissism, accelerated by the still-extant British class system.
I am now quite a fan of Alex Marwood. She's a British writer who is either of working class roots or write convincingly like one who is. She writes with contempt for the monied classes who are careless with the lives of those they consider beneath them and disposable, but there is also a humanity that animates all her characters, even the most despicable.
The tone and theme of her books are not terribly dissimilar from those of J.K. Rowling writing under her Robert Galbraith pen name. Rowling, as we know, was once an impoverished single mother, and while she tries to "remember where she came from," usually in admirable fashion, I can sometimes sense in her adult novels the struggle to maintain her identity as someone of humble origins, despite now being one of the richest women in the world.
Marwood hasn't hit the big time yet, so her writing is more raw, and while I wish her every success, her books have an edge that Rowling has lost after millions of dollars and many volumes of Harry Potter.
The Darkest Secret is about the disappearance, at age three, of little Coco Jackson, the daughter of a rich real estate developer. Coco's godmother launched a "Find Coco" media campaign that went viral in the early days of social media, but twelve years later, Coco remains missing, the mystery never solved.
The book alternates between two weekends: the weekend that Coco disappeared, twelve years ago, at her father's fiftieth birthday party, when he was surrounded by his rich friends, his second wife, and his future wives, and twelve years later, when he's found dead handcuffed to his bed, and eldest daughter (by his first wife) Camilla ("Millie") has to go face Daddy's friends and all her half-siblings and finally learn what happened when her half-sister Coco disappeared.
Sean Jackson is a first class asshole. Rich and narcissistic (and Marwood does an excellent job of plumbing his petty, narcissistic little psyche), he inevitably winds up estranged from all his daughters and his exes as he continually trades in wives for newer, hotter replacements. But his friends are all equally despicable. Sean's poor daughters grow up bereft of any real father figure and blaming themselves and each other. Sean's exes all hate each other and have little love for the spawn of his other mistresses (everyone was a mistress before becoming a wife). Even the girls, while their attitudes are understandable, are mostly unsympathetic brats.
Fortunately for the reader, Marwood's novels are not conventional mysteries — she switches POVs and takes us inside the heads of all her characters, so by the end of the book, the reader knows everything that really happened, even if the characters don't. But likewise, Marwood does not close her novels with tidy climaxes in which justice is done, and The Darkest Secret ends on a note that will not satisfy anyone who's been waiting the entire book to see these rich assholes get what they deserve. Except maybe Sean, but we already know from the start that he's dead, and ironically, while not blameless, he's actually not the most despicable of this bunch.
I've come to look forward to Alex Marwood's novels, which are satisfying modern British noir with a heaping dose of class consciousness. Besides J.K. Rowling, I think she's also a bit comparable to Stephen King — although she writes in a different genre (though I'd be seriously jazzed to see her venture into fantasy/horror), her stories are very plotty and character-driven and show an acute awareness of humanity, warts and all, and in particular what it's like to have gotten the shitty end of the stick in life.
Also by Alex Marwood: My reviews of The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door.
My complete list of book reviews.