The promotional copy for “The Engagement Party,” the latest from best-selling thriller writer Darby Kane, gets it exactly right: the book is indeed a cross between “And Then There Were None” – Agatha Christie’s standard-bearing locked-room mystery – and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the Lois Duncan novel turned horror movie franchise. But with its main cast of six thirtysomethings in perfect male-female balance, “The Engagement Party” kept reminding me of another touchstone: the sitcom “Friends.” Let’s call this episode “The One Where They Get Stuck on an Island in Maine with a Murderer.”

As “The Engagement Party” begins, newly engaged engineer Will Mayer wants to celebrate with three of his best friends from Bowdoin College, so he and his fiancée, Ruthie Simmons, invite them to a small private island in Maine. The guests are Alex and Cassie Greene, college sweethearts turned Providence power couple (their power daughter isn’t invited), and Mitch Andersen, a Boston-area landscaper who’d just as soon skip the party, as he tells his friend and business partner, Sierra Prescott.

Sierra knows why Mitch doesn’t want to revisit his college days: he’s told her about Emily Hunt. Part of Mitch’s Bowdoin friendship circle, Emily went missing just after graduation 12 years earlier. Her disappearance led to the expected chorus of victim blaming – Emily drank too much, Emily wore too little – until her body was found 4 miles from campus, in the New Meadows River.

Sierra cajoles Mitch into accepting the party invitation – “Maybe it would be good to replace a terrible memory with a good one” – and doesn’t protest when he asks her to tag along as his plus-one.

The party venue is a three-story island house – “A friend’s family owns the place,” Ruthie explains when the six celebrants are gathered. “We’re borrowing it for a few days.” Ruthie, Alex, and Sierra take turns with the novel’s point of view, so when weird things start happening, readers are kept apprised by a representative from each couple. It transpires that Ruthie, Alex, and Sierra all harbor secrets, although Sierra’s isn’t much of one: she’s gaga over Mitch.

About those “weird things”: the three couples are supposed to be the only people on the island, but soon after everyone enters the house, Ruthie, looking out the window, points out that the garage’s door, which had been closed, is now ajar. Nobody cops to opening it. They investigate and find a vandalized car in the garage. The motor is running, but the car is driverless, if not quite abandoned. Mitch forces open the trunk and reveals a dead male body. The note that Alex finds on the corpse reads “TIME TO TELL THE TRUTH”– about Emily, obviously. It’s not lost on Sierra that Mitch and Alex recognize the dead guy.

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Sierra is the group’s square peg – in “Friends” terms, the novel’s Phoebe Buffay – and she’s the closest the story has to a heart. This isn’t to say she doesn’t do anything ill-conceived, but then what would a horror story be if characters behaved sensibly in the face of danger? It’s through Sierra that Kane signals an awareness that she’s working some familiar horror tropes (as she readily admits in her acknowledgments). A sampler: “Every low-budget horror movie started this way,” Sierra thinks as she first approaches the island. Later on, when she hears a screeching sound, “every horror movie she’d ever watched while tucked in a blanket on her couch rolled through her mind.” And did I mention that it’s a dark and stormy night?

Kane can get away with this because she’s not harvesting a genre for parts so much as playing with reader expectations. By coupling her horror-trope winks with Christie-esque plotting, she has created a higher-order horror/thriller hybrid. And Kane has enhanced the story with a sobering through line. Sierra’s, Alex’s and Ruthie’s chapters are interspersed with chapters headed “Book Notes” that recap the life of Emily, an old-money princess who enjoyed playing mind games with men but nevertheless – the notes’ initially anonymous author is firm – didn’t deserve to die.

The “Book Notes” chapters carry the implicit feminism that drives the current, post–“Gone Girl” popularity of woman-centered psychological suspense novels, and “The Engagement Party” takes its place among the better ones. Up until the book’s final gasp-inducer a few pages from the end, readers will likely be consumed by the shifting dynamics within the six-person main cast. Never mind the “Friends” theme song’s refrain, “I’ll be there for you”: it’s more like “Who will turn on who?”

Nell Beram is coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.” Her work has recently appeared in “The New Yorker” and at Shelf Awareness and Vogue.com.


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