The suburban Ohio neighborhood created by Carla Buckley in The Deepest Secret is a cosy, reassuring cul-de-sac of the Maeve Binchy variety. Here the trees are leafy and the denizens mostly lovable. There is the elderly family dentist, for example, the flamboyant single woman, the struggling divorced mom, and so on. There is also the perfect Lattimore family — mother a beautiful website designer, father a rising corporate executive, son and daughter talented — around which the plot revolves. “The moment she’d spotted the white house with the gray roof nestled at the bottom of the street, she had felt a spark of interest,” Eve Lattimore recalls, “…she’d stepped inside to gleaming wooden floors and sunshine streaming through the windows. She had thought, Here’s where I want to raise my family.” But what’s this? “Around 2:00 a.m., she thinks about borrowing Albert’s shotgun and taking aim…. She’s already a felon. In for a penny, in for a pound…. She’d have to hide the empty wine bottle before David came home.”
Shotguns? Felonies? Secret drinking? Could Eve be the serpent in this pretty garden, or is she merely overwhelmed? By the time she starts chugging wine and contemplating firearms, our heroine has certainly been through a great deal. But thanks to Buckley’s restrained, economical style (we are spared dancing fireflies until the final sentence) and the novel’s brisk tempo, those ordeals constitute an engrossing domestic thriller that relaxes its grip only when redemption, unfortunately, looms.
The novel opens with a birthday party for the Lattimores’ fourteen-year old son. Anxiety builds as Eve fusses over balloons and cake. Then “At 8:11, the bolt shoots back and Tyler shuffles out of his room, his camera in his hand.” It is a chilling, dread-filled image. But the boy, we quickly learn, is a victim, not a threat. Tyler suffers from a rare disease, xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), which renders him fatally vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation. A prisoner in a luxurious jail governed by a loving warden, he ventures outside only at night and even then in protective clothing for fear of unexpected exposure to lethal beams. “The sun’s coming up,” Tyler notes as he returns almost late to his house, “the earth rolling toward it like a marble across a floor.” In his world, reality is queasily inverted: light bad, dark good.
Buckley shrewdly conveys the paranoid, claustrophobic atmosphere pervading the sealed Lattimore home, to which commuting husband David returns on weekends and from which Tyler’s troubled older sister escapes whenever she can. But there is no seal against fate. In a tragic instant, Eve’s ordered life is convulsed by a moment of careless driving, and a neighborhood child, the daughter of Eve’s best friend, disappears. As the search for the missing girl turns into a homicide investigation, Tyler’s innocent nocturnal wanderings acquire a sinister tinge, and the secrets of other families are exposed. “No house is safe,” Eve concludes, as she contemplates the toxin-free, UV-resistant fortress she has created for her son, now tragically jeopardized by her inattention. No wonder the novel’s redemptive conclusion seems hollow. It takes more than sunshine to dispel this kind of dread.