The Stranger Diaries is an interesting mix. It is a contemporary version of a Victorian Gothic novel; there is also a story within the story, which brings the past into the present and makes it relevant again. It’s the only stand-alone novel (that I know of) by Elly Griffiths, who is best known for her Ruth Galloway archaeology mysteries set in the wilds of Norfolk (most of which I have enjoyed quite a bit), and a series called Stephens and Mephisto (which I haven’t read—yet).
The diaries mentioned in the title belong to Clare Cassidy, a divorced English teacher with a 15-year-old daughter named Georgia. Clare teaches at a local comprehensive, Talgarth High, on the coast of Sussex, which includes an old building that was formerly the home of a reclusive Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was most famous for a short story entitled “The Stranger,” a murder mystery with which Clare became fascinated, and which led her to decide to write a biography of its author. She also occasionally teaches the story in her upper-level English class, which means there is a fair degree of familiarity with it amongst both staff and students.
The set-up for the book includes the typical Gothic trappings: Holland’s wife, Alice, was rumored to have fallen to her death from the staircase of the house that descends from Holland’s study on the top floor, and is said to haunt the school; the legend is that if Alice’s ghost is seen, the incident foreshadows a death. The atmosphere is amped up by the location of the book in moody Sussex, with dense sea mists, lonely downs, and abandoned factories.
Clare’s friend and colleague Ella Elphick is found murdered, accompanied by a note that is a quote from “The Stranger.” The police investigation is led by Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur (herself an alumnus of Talgarth High), who initially suspects Clare, until other events take place that seem rather to target than to implicate her.
The book is alternately narrated by Clare, DS Kaur, and Clare’s daughter, Georgia, and the story grows quite complex, due both to the variety of narrators with their markedly different points of view and insider knowledge, and to the proliferation of interesting and potentially sinister secondary characters. It also grows wilder and more strange as it incorporates echoes of the Victorian past. I never guessed the murderer, but greatly enjoyed trying to figure out who it could be, as my potential suspects kept meeting an untimely end!
DS Harbinder Kaur was a great character (she and Georgia both introduce some humorous notes that are a nice contrast to Clare’s slightly hysterical tone), and I’m hoping perhaps Griffiths will bring her back in subsequent books, now that she has established such a thorough back story for her.
I hesitated to review this book right now, because it would be so much more effective if you were to read it in October, just when Hallowe’en is approaching! Perhaps you should put it on your list and revisit it then for maximum creepiness.