Joyce Maynard’s new suspense novel is called “After Her.” Should she ever sit down to write another memoir (she’s already written two), “After Him” would be the logical title. Maynard is a good writer whose fate is to be forever overshadowed by the Great Writer she had a relationship with in her teens. Maynard was 18, and J.D. Salinger was 53 when he wrote her a letter about her now-famous New York Times Magazine article, “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back On Life.” After a series of letters back and forth, Maynard left college (Yale) at the end of her freshman year to move in with Salinger; 10 months later, he abruptly ended their relationship during a Florida vacation. Maynard wrote about her time with Salinger in her 1998 memoir, “At Home in the World,” which was reissued this month. She also appears in Shane Salerno’s new documentary, “Salinger.” Given all the buzz right now over Salinger, “After Her” feels like an afterthought, which is a bit of a shame.
As she did in her 1992 novel, “To Die For” (which was based on the real-life case of a New Hampshire high school administrator who persuaded her teenage lover and his friends to murder her husband), Maynard develops this suspense novel out of a kernel of true crime. In Marin County, Calif., during the late 1970s, a serial killer known as “the Trailside Killer” assaulted and murdered several women on the hiking trails of Mount Tamalpais and the surrounding San Francisco Bay area.
Maynard’s tale opens just before the killer — here called “the Sunset Strangler” — begins his rampage. Two young sisters are living with their divorced and depressed mother in a modest housing development at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. Rachel, our narrator, is 14 and nursing crushes on Peter Frampton and John Travolta; her younger sister, Patty, is athletic and adoring, “like the most loyal dog, the kind who follows her master in a snowstorm even if it means she’ll freeze to death.” Together, the girls snoop on their suburban neighbors and wait for their father to surprise them with a visit.
The girls’ — and particularly Rachel’s — relationship to their roaming father is the heart of this novel and, really, the main reason to read it. Tony Toricelli is a police detective who lives in an apartment in San Francisco. An Italian charmer who cooks up a mean marinara and entertains his daughters by deftly making hair “spiders” out of stray strands of their long dark locks, Tony, as his ex-wife puts it, likes “making women happy.”
When the Sunset Strangler starts murdering his victims, Tony is put in charge of the investigation. For a time, Rachel reaps benefits from her newly famous dad’s appearances on the nightly news. The queen bee of the popular girls begins including Rachel in the after-school pizza and petting parties that take place in the rec room of her family’s nearby suburban mansion. Maynard seems to have total recall, not only of the social signifiers of a privileged ’70s female adolescence (the canopy beds, portable televisions and beanbag chairs), but of the swiftness with which a girl could be admitted to — or exiled from — the magic kingdom of middle-school coolness. As months go by and the Sunset Strangler’s body count mounts, Detective Toricelli begins to look more like a bumbling Columbo than a hip Kojak, and Rachel’s social stock plummets. Motivated by that humiliation, as well as by love for her physically deteriorating father, who’s clearly becoming a collateral victim, Rachel decides that she and Patty need to catch the killer.
The suspense sections of “After Her” constitute your standard-issue serial-killer story. The only part of that narrative that stands out is the conclusion, which is so implausible that even a homicidal butler waiting in the wings would have been preferable. What does make a sharp impression is Maynard’s depiction of Rachel’s protective love for her dad. Tony is a terrific character: a skirt chaser with a conscience, a hardworking but limited detective. Indeed, he is so charismatic that if he ever had cause to knock on Salinger’s tightly sealed door, I’ll bet it would have swung open within minutes.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Joyce Maynard
HarperCollins. 309 pp. $25.99