Joyce Maynards latest novel, After Her, is loosely based on the 1980s Trailside Killer case, in which a serial killer targeted victims on hiking trails in Northern California, spreading terror through the region.
The story is narrated some 30 years after the murders by Rachel Torricelli, whose father, Anthony, was the lead homicide detective charged with investigating the slayings.
Most of the action takes place over the year or so when corpses of women start showing up with alarming frequency in parks in Marin County, north of San Francisco, where Rachel roams freely with her tomboy younger sister, Patty.
Rachel, meanwhile, is struggling with the attraction and terror of teenage sex. The killings, she says, had begun right around the time all the other girls started talking about their periods, and in an unsettling way those two events the murders of all those young women and my own anxious anticipation of blood were linked for me.
Both girls idolize their dad, even though his chronic infidelity has led their mom to throw him out. Rachel, who styles herself a keen observer like her dad, decides to help him crack the case.
As a detective thriller, the pacing is off. The narrative meanders until the last 30 pages, when the unresolved plot points hurtle to a clever but contrived conclusion.
As a character-driven story about the bonds between sisters, the story is equally unconvincing. The girls come off nearly as flat as the Betty and Veronica characters in the comics Patty adores.
The main problem is the narrator, who sucks up all the oxygen in the story. I was good at making up stories, she tells us. Later, we learn she has visions. We hear about her extraordinary storytelling gift over and over, until finally, she becomes the semi-famous author she longs to be.
Patty, the nearly mute, loyal sidekick, has to die for plot reasons and is killed off in a terrorist attack in Somalia that has no organic relationship to the story. The depressed mom is virtually invisible. And although Maynard says in an afterword that the dad was based on the real detective who investigated the killings, the fictional character is largely an amalgam of genre conventions.
Maynard is a slick, commercial writer. An earlier novel, To Die For, was turned into a hit movie. Another novel, Labor Day, is being made into a film due out this fall. Perhaps After Her was always meant to be just a trial run for the Hollywood version.