In an afterword to her new novel, AFTER HER, Joyce Maynard explains that the plot was inspired by the actual case of the Trailside Killer in Marin County, near San Francisco, who terrorized the area for months in the late 1970s.
As is the case with any skillful novelist's treatment of real-world events, Maynard's gift here is that she brings to life not only the terror and dread that accompanied the killer's preying on young women, but also the emotional impact of the case on very particular people --- in this case, the girls whose father is in charge of the murder investigation.
Rachel and Patty Torricelli's father, Anthony, is not only a skilled police investigator and an excellent interrogator, but also dashingly handsome and charismatic, almost to a fault. When the girls are preteens (some time before the events of AFTER HER), their parents’ divorce. Apparently their father's tendency to flirt shamelessly with every woman he meets has finally gone a little too far.
"AFTER HER is nominally a murder mystery, but to call it that is only to scratch the surface of what's going on here."
Separated from their father, essentially neglected by their mother (who retreats every evening to her bedroom with a stack of library books, leaving the girls to fend for themselves for dinner), Patty and Rachel have the kind of freedom most girls their age could only dream of. They sneak through their neighbors' backyards and watch TV through their picture windows; spy on their neighbors and make up stories about them; and endlessly wander the trails that crisscross the mountain rising behind their home.
When young women are discovered strangled to death on that very mountain, most residents of Marin County steer clear of the area. But not Patty and Rachel. Feeling invincible thanks to their familiarity with the mountain and their connection to the investigation, the girls continue to roam there freely, even as the specifics of the case --- which involve raping and posing the women's naked bodies --- begin to preoccupy Rachel more and more.
Soon the "popular kids" start to take an interest in Rachel, who promises (whether she actually has the facts straight or not) to tell them the secrets behind the investigation. But as these new "friendships" start to negatively affect Rachel's relationship with Patty, and as Rachel begins to observe the toll the ongoing investigation is taking on their father's health and well-being, she takes a drastic step that may not only derail the investigation but also destroy her relationship with her father.
AFTER HER is nominally a murder mystery, but to call it that is only to scratch the surface of what's going on here. The book is about a young girl reaching sexual maturity in the midst of an environment of sexual fear and confusion; it's about the loyalty of two particularly close sisters; and, in the end, it's about one woman's desire to rectify her father's personal and professional disgrace.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 23, 2013