Quercus | 2018 (1 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
Clare Cassidy teaches Literature at Talgarth High, a comprehensive school partly built within the old home of R.M. Holland, a Victorian writer of Gothic novels, most well-known for his frightening short story The Stranger. Clare is fascinated by Holland, writing his biography, and using The Stranger to inspire her creative writing class. So many rumours surround Holland, especially to do with his wife whose troubled ghost is believed to haunt Talgarth. But Talgarth’s troubles are not all in the past. One of Clare’s colleagues is murdered, a line from The Stranger is found written next to the body. It’s an upsetting, horrible time for everyone at the school. Clare finds comfort in her diary, confiding her thoughts of suspicion to its pages. Until the day she looks back at the last entry and finds written in another’s hand ‘Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me’.
Elly Griffiths is one of my very favourite authors. I love her two long-running series, the Ruth Galloway books and the Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. I couldn’t wait to read The Stranger Diaries, a stand alone Gothic murder mystery, and I loved it even more than I knew I would! This is the best of writing. Elly Griffiths is brilliant at creating characters that might have their flaws and eccentricities but we fall for them so deeply all the same.
The Stranger Diaries is full of characters I cared for, particularly Clare and her daughter Georgia, and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur. The novel’s narrative moves between the three of them, which means that we sometimes revisit an event viewed from a different perspective. It’s really effective. But it also means that we see each of these three women as they see themselves and each other, with the added perspective of Clare’s diary entries which are scattered throughout. Harbinder and Clare both see faults in the others, there is an initial dislike, but we know that this is partly because they are so different to one another. Watching their relationship develop is such a joy of this marvellous novel.
The story is excellent! We have a small group of suspects. We know that the murderer is probably hiding in plain sight and this adds such tension and fear. The mood of suspicion and dread is intensified by the presence in the shadows of the past of author R.M. Holland. The text of The Stranger threads through the story, all adding to the Gothic mood of The Stranger Diaries. Parts of the school building are out of bounds. They’re described beautifully, they’re so chilling, as is the empty factory that looms so large over Clare’s cottage. Elly Griffiths is always so good at setting her novels in beautifully evoked landscapes, and this novel is no different. It’s enchanting, frightening and deliciously creepy.
There are themes I love here – especially the love of books and the love of writing. This fills the novel from start to finish. So many of the characters keep a diary. Everybody seems to think everybody else is watching Strictly or on their phone or playing games, when actually much of the time they’re reading or writing. Georgia is such a fascinating teenager and in many ways a mystery to her mother, as we learn from their sections of the narrative. Georgia is every bit as voracious a reader and diary keeper as her mother but her mother doesn’t know that. It’s really beautifully done and so true to life.
Where there are diaries there are secrets and many of them are laid bare in this book, but the real pleasure for me comes not only from the murder mystery and its very excellent, unexpected and exciting conclusion (it is fantastic!) but also from Harbinder, who is a spellbinding creation. And then there’s Herbert the dog, of course. I mustn’t forget Herbert. Without doubt this is one of my top reads of the year. I urge you not to miss it.
**Updated to add** that Elly Griffiths is appearing alongside Rachel Abbott and Sabine Durrant at London’s Rooftop Book Club on 12 November! If you haven’t been to one of these events, I do recommend them. More details here.