Halloween, 2004. It’s Nana’s eightieth birthday, and she’s arranged to celebrate in style, inviting the whole Darker family for a night of fun and shenanigans on her remote isolated home on the Cornish coast. Most of the family haven’t spoken in years, and they’re only really here for Nana’s reading of her Will. When Nana—who’s been fated by a palm reader to die when she turns eighty—is found dead when the clock strikes midnight, things start to take a darker turn. And when someone else turns up dead an hour later, the Darkers come to realise someone is killing them off one by one by one.
Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney is a novel reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, released at the end of August, exactly a month ago. Set concurrently in the past and the present, and narrated by youngest Darker daughter, Daisy, Daisy Darker is a fast-paced, twisty thriller that was beautifully narrated in audiobook form by Stephanie Racine. While this was the third thriller/mystery I read this month, it definitely took the cake, because while Renee Knight’s The Secretary was decent, that one kinda felt like it tread a similar path to most unreliable-narrator-thrillers that I’ve read and reviewed over the past half-decade on this blog. I most definitely thought Daisy Darker was going to join their ranks, until the plot twist near the end. Holy fuck, the plot twist! I haven’t felt this way reading my current fave of character-based stories since the ending of The Heights by Louise Candlish that I reviewed this time last year. Maybe something is in the September air? Could be my ten year anniversary with WordPress, that passed me by two weeks ago completely unnoticed?
Daisy Darker is a beautiful character-driven tale. I loved all of the characters—loved their characterisation, not the characters themselves. Because 95 per cent of them are terrible people. The second plot twist—the one that threw me in for a loop—only reiterated the point. All of the characters, despite being confined to one interest, they made it theirs. There’s Nana Beatrice Darker, famous children’s author, who is…well, maybe you should read it for yourself. Her son Frank, who’s obsessed with music, always early to events because of his mother’s love of clocks, even to his own death. Frank’s ex-wife Nancy, never Mum, a failed actress and lover of plants who never really forgave Daisy for her broken heart. Oldest daughter Rose, the intelligent one, a vet who’s lonely and destined to be forever alone, favourite of Frank. Middle daughter, Lily, a complete asshole of a person, Nancy’s favourite, whose only redeeming characteristic is, near her end, her love for her daughter (Whoopsies!). Lily’s daughter Trixie, who’s a teenager, but acts nothing like a typical teenager, dressing like her Nana (foreshadowing, much?) and obsessed more with books than the TV and technology her mother lusts after. There’s former neighbour Connor, Rose’s ex-boyfriend and BBC crime correspondent, who’s a lot more entwined in the Darker sisters’ secrets than we the audience are led to believe. And, finally, there’s Daisy Darker herself. Daisy has a rare heart defect, and her heart’s stopped eight times before she reached the age of thirteen (foreshadowing, much?). Forgotten by most of her family, Daisy volunteers for the elderly and seeks refuge in books, only friendly with Trixie, and the favourite granddaughter of Nana. But there’s a secret—specifically hidden from the audience, through the magic of unreliable-narrator-thrillers—told to us through flashbacks, one that especially Daisy herself, is not ready to hear.
I completely immersed myself in Racine’s narration, quickly swept up in the lives of the dysfunctional Darker family. I predicted the first plot twist—who’s behind all this—because you can’t go on and on about how your story is 2022 And Then There Were None, whack us over the head with the isolated gothic house and Cornish setting, and then somehow not be surprised when you guess who’s behind it all. I even guessed the helping hand, the brains behind the poetry that was a heavy-handed wink at the Ten Little Indians element of And Then There Were None. That was all well and good. I could have forgotten these characters, like I feel when I read old reviews for psychological thrillers on this blog and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I totally remember Loren Wynne-Estes and Christian Grey Knockoff. Totally memorable”. One of the original reasons I turned to book reviews on this blog: the fallibility of memory. It would’ve been the same with Daisy Darker, even though the reliance on close-knit, interesting, dysfunctional characters made it more memorable than seventy cast members all screeching and braying for your attention. It was a tale about dysfunctional families, and empathising with the Big Bads, you can totally see why they did what they did, and why almost every member of the Darker family is completely fucked up. Even without the big reveal, these characters are interesting…
But the Big Reveal shook things up. It could have gone either way. Plot twists like this can either go the way of certain popular movie franchises starring Bruce Willis, or they can turn into shitty one-star free indie fanfiction that should never have seen the light of day. Thankfully, Feeney (or Racine narrating, or both), made this worth it, and with the ending tying neatly to the prologue, I finished the novel horrified, stunned, constantly thinking about the characters for a day or two afterwards, unable to even contemplate starting a new audiobook (and I’ve been through my fair share of them these past few months). Everything leading up to it is so wonderful. The setting made nostalgic by du Maurier and Christie. Shitty characters unable to come to terms with their own behaviour. Unreliable narrators that normally piss me right off but the storytelling calmed my temper. In the flashback scenes, I started being annoyed with Feeney’s late-’70s-into-’80s nostalgia, but with the big reveal, and the dark secrets that lay behind Feeney’s jump down memory lane, it didn’t bother me by the end. By the end, especially with what Connor did, man, I was an emotional wreck. Basically: the Darkers deserved exactly what they got, and get it they do not, because they’re all as dense as they perceive one of the Big Bads. Joke’s on them.
Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney is a mystery thriller I wasn’t expecting to love as much as I did. Lovely narration, fascinating characters, predictable killer reveal, but the ending is worth it. I’ll definitely be looking into more by Alice Feeney, because if you give me a good character-driven story inspired by the likes of Daphne du Maurier and heavily influenced by Agatha Christie, I am all for it.