What if you found a secret message in your diary, only you hadn’t written it?
This is one of many creepy moments in The Stranger Diaries, the first standalone novel from British novelist Elly Griffiths, who is better known for her long-running Ruth Galloway mystery series.
English teacher Clare Cassidy runs a creative writing class in a spooky old building at Talgarth High. She is also writing a biography of Victorian author R.M. Holland, who used to reside in the very same building and whose study has been left eerily untouched since his death. Clare learns her colleague and friend, Ella Elphick has been murdered, and is disturbed to hear there was a note found with Ella’s body with a quote from The Stranger, a short ghost story written by Holland – and one that Clare teaches in her class. When Clare finds a message from a stranger in her private diary, astute detective Harbinder Kaur realises the handwriting matches the note found next to Ella and believes the killer has a connection with Clare.
The story is told from the points of view of Clare, DS Kaur and Georgia, Clare’s fifteen-year-old daughter who, unbeknownst to her mother, is part of a secret group who write online journals. These alternating viewpoints provide an often amusing insight into what Clare and DS Kaur really think of each other and, quite humorously, how wise-beyond-her-years Georgia is playing her mother by telling her what she thinks she wants to hear. There’s also a story within the story – the novel opens with the first pages of The Stranger, setting a mysterious and ominous tone from the outset, continuing in sections throughout the novel before being repeated in full at the conclusion to great dramatic effect.
Clare, Harbinder and Georgia are nuanced, authentic characters with voices that come to life on the page. DS Kaur is particularly readable; still living at home with her parents at thirty-five and spending her spare time scrolling through Facebook and playing Panda Pop. Elly Griffiths (who also teaches creative writing) cleverly uses the opportunity of having a writer main character to reference tropes of the gothic mystery, for example, things happen in threes, and animals often play a significant role because they can sense danger (but are also expendable). Take note, Clare has a beloved pet dog named Herbert.
The mystery of ‘whodunit’ should be a surprise to most readers. There’s plenty of curious suspects, including married head of department, Rick Lewis, who has a habit of developing crushes on members of his staff; tanned and handsome head teacher, Tony Sweetman; and Patrick O’Leary, a sporty student with a crush on Ella. There are also lots of ‘ooh’ moments, one involving the mystery of Holland’s wife, Alice, who haunts the old building at the school (and who may have been murdered by Holland), and a second murder I didn’t see coming despite some crafty foreshadowing.
The Stranger Diaries is a savvy modern take on the traditional gothic mystery and is particularly enjoyable to read because of its engaging and believable characters, incredibly witty voice, and suspenseful plot, with a touch of otherworldly spookiness. I’d love to see DS Kaur in another mystery. Elly Griffiths, you’ve got a new fan.
The Stranger Diaries is published in Australia by Hachette.
Standout Simile: –
He looked, in fact, just like an illustration in a child’s picture book. A white Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, a creature made by blobbing white paint on the page and adding legs.