Imagine your closest friend utterly betraying you. Years later, when she seeks forgiveness, you invite her to your engagement party as a gesture of reconciliation. But seething hostilities rise to the surface, ruining everyone’s evening. After an awful night, your friend’s battered, lifeless body is found at the bottom of a rocky cliff.
Newly engaged Marissa Parlette is living this nightmare. She should be celebrating her upcoming wedding, but she can’t shake the image of her friend lying dead on the beach. Did she fall? Was she pushed? Or did she take a purposeful step into darkness? Desperate for answers, Marissa digs deep into the events of the party. But what she remembers happening after nightfall now carries sinister implications: the ugly sniping, the clandestine meetings, the drunken flirtations. The more she investigates, the more she questions everything she thought she knew about her friends, the man she once trusted . . . and even herself.
A. J. Banner, author of best-selling novels The Good Neighbor and The Twilight Wife, delivers an intricately plotted novel of psychological suspense in which nothing is as it seems. Banner, who holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, describes herself as a fan of Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents who “feels at home writing stories with unexpected twists and turns.”
The story opens with a small engagement party. Marissa, a speech pathologist, has agreed to marry Nathan Black, the divorced father of nine-year-old Anna. At the party are Lauren and her husband, Jensen, who are Nathan’s next-door neighbors. Lauren was also Marissa’s best childhood friend, but the two became estranged in college and have only recently reconnected. Also present are Nathan’s brother, Keith, a cardiac surgeon, and his skittish wife, Hedra. To say that the evening is awkward is a major understatement. Things only get stranger later that night when Marissa catches Nathan sneaking out at 2:05 a.m. and finds Lauren dead at the bottom of a steep, rocky cliff the next morning.
Did Lauren fall? Or was she pushed? Where was Nathan going at that hour of the night? Has he been completely honest with her? What about Hedra’s bizarre behavior? Not only did she suddenly run from the dinner table to the bathroom. Marissa witnessed Hedra and Nathan whispering in the hallway.
The more Marissa seeks answers, the deeper into a mysterious web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and secrets she finds herself. And the investigating detective is becoming increasingly curious about the fact that Marissa manages to happen upon or be at the center of events that require police and medical intervention far more often than is remotely normal.
In A. J. Banner’s deftly-plotted mystery, every character — without exception — becomes a suspect and nothing is as it seems on the surface. At one point, Marissa finds her own footprints outside of Nathan’s house and discovers her shoes are wet, with grass and debris clinging to them. But she doesn’t remember donning them or walking through the woods. So how did they get that way? Is Nathan’s ex-wife, Rianne, really “unhinged,” as he claims? Has he been faithful to her? And what did Lauren want to tell Marissa following the engagement party when she promised Marissa that they would speak the following morning?
The story moves at a fast pace, never bogging down as the clues mount but then seem to lead to dead ends. Motives abound, but the questions that continue to nag Marissa believably center around Nathan’s behavior. After all, what happened to Marissa in college is revealed, along with details about her relationship with Nathan, at expertly-timed intervals, demonstrating that her wariness is well-founded.
When Banner finally reveals what happened on that fateful night, readers will be shocked and likely find themselves re-reading the opening sequence of the book to review the clues that they missed during their initial reading. Because, after all, the conversation during that engagement party foreshadows what is to come and demonstrates both Banner’s sophisticated plot and the nearly flawless manner in which she executes it in After Nightfall.