Mystery of the Month – The Stranger Diaries

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.

‘My Heart Fluttered’ & Other Clichés

My heart fluttered with excitement this week when I received some expert advice on the first three chapters of my manuscript. A particularly useful tip that I was given was to avoid resorting to clichés when portraying the emotions of my main character. One of the most common clichés writers fall prey to is describing emotion using physiological responses. For example, when my main character tells us that her ‘heart fluttered’ or her ‘gut twisted’.

Mary Kole describes eyes, heart, lungs and stomach as the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse in her article on Kid Lit, stating that emotions described using these parts of the human body appear in every manuscript and the onus is on the reader to come up with something different.

I had a search through my manuscript for instances where I describe emotion using a physiological response. The results made my heart sink.

I found over THIRTY instances where my main character’s heart was doing something wacky, from leaping to stopping, being heavy, jumping around, aching, racing, thudding, lurching, deflating, twisting, dropping – the whole gamut of heart-related things. My poor main character will probably need to seek medical advice by the end of the novel after the rollercoaster ride I’ve sent her poor ticker on.

There are (gasp!) TWENTY-THREE occasions where someone takes a deep breath. I’m furrowing my brow to discover THIRTY-SIX frowns in my manuscript, and I need to see a physio after counting THIRTY-FOUR shrugs altogether. Not to mention rolling my eyes at over TWO HUNDRED mentions of … well, eyes.

But this is realistic, isn’t it? When I’m anxious, my heart does feel like it’s pounding against my rib cage. My stomach does twist! When I’m nervous, I do feel short of breath! I’m not sure I actually shrug that much or roll my eyes every five minutes, but those are my two most frequently used emojis! And besides, all of these things are universal cues that readers understand, right?!?

I searched through a couple of published novels by respectable authors and I did find a few hearts dropping into stomachs and leaping into throats. For example, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White has a few mentions of a heart beating erratically during a tense situation. In Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence is Death, I didn’t find any. But then in a recent women’s fiction novel I read, there were over one hundred. Generally speaking, most of the novels I checked had about five descriptions of emotions as a physiological response, which seems fair enough.

So what am I going to do about my main character’s overactive heartbeat, irritable bowel and impending asthma? Well, I’m definitely taking on board the advice I received. It’s time to tidy up my lazy writing.

Robin Patchen is an editor writing for Live Write Thrive, and suggests showing emotions through thoughts and actions. “When you have a very emotional scene, slow it down. Let us hear your character’s every thought. Highlight a few details. Show the actions.” This is hard work, but well worth the effort!

A lot of my references to hearts, eyes, lungs and stomachs can simply be deleted. Another thing I’m experimenting with is describing how the main character feels at a certain point in the story and relating it back to a similar situation in her past. I’m hoping this will be a good way to reveal information about character.

And in another instance, a character in my manuscript was shrugging so much I’ve drawn attention to it in a way that I hope adds humour to the story (e.g. “He’d shrugged so many times that I was worried he might dislocate a shoulder.”)

It’s also worth keeping in mind that a lot of these things can be discussed during a copy edit.

It’s hard to think of creative alternatives, especially since most of them have already been thought of by one or more of the other thousands of talented writers in the world. But when you do create that moment of pure writing gold, it will surely make your heart swell with pride.

Mystery of the Month – The Hunting Party

A New Year’s party in a remote Scottish Highlands lodge turns deadly when one of the partygoers is murdered. Only you won’t learn the identity of the victim, or the murderer, until the end of the novel.

Like all good murder mysteries, The Hunting Party begins with a dead body. The gruesome discovery is made in the snowy wilderness and although we don’t know who it is just yet, we do know it’s one of the thirteen guests staying at the lodge. And although there’s whispers of a serial killer on the loose, we can expect the murderer is (cue ominous music)… among them.

The story is told through the points of view of five main characters, jumping between 2 January 2019, when the body has been found, and the three days beforehand. There’s lodge employee, Heather, the closest thing the novel has to a sleuth, and quiet gamekeeper with a dark past, Doug. Eager-to-please Emma has organised the event for the group of friends, who’ve known each other since their days at Oxford. Flirty mean girl Miranda loves to ruffle a few feathers and “mousey nobody” Katie harbours a secret that will rupture the group of friends forever. Rounding out the party are Emma’s boyfriend, Miranda’s husband and two other couples, including one with a baby.

The Hunting Party is the debut crime novel for Lucy Foley, who usually writes historical fiction. She is evidently well versed in the mystery genre as this story has all the elements of a classic whodunit. The icy Scottish wilderness takes the place of the ‘locked room’; the setting aptly described by the absence of footprints in the snow, dark trees that press in, and the watchful silence of the forest.

Juicy tidbits are drip fed chapter by chapter, like reading a secret journal where characters reveal their innermost thoughts and divulge their true opinions of each other. For example, Miranda tells us she feels a sense of power being the friend others look up to and the one with the perfect life. But supposed best friend Katie tells us Miranda can either “make you feel as though you are borrowing a little of her light” or “she can make you feel like shit, depending on her whim.”

We soon learn the group of longtime friends aren’t as buddy-buddy as they seem, with resentment, bitterness and grudges galore simmering beneath the surface of their drugs and alcohol-fuelled antics. Everyone has something to hide and a reason to want the victim dead, meaning that by about halfway through the novel, we have a pretty good idea who that victim is. The same cannot be said for the identity of the murderer, which should come as a surprise to even the most savvy crime fiction reader.

The Hunting Party successfully modernises the traditional murder mystery. There’s a hefty list of possible suspects, a suitably claustrophobic environment and enough sexy moments to make Agatha Christie blush. A complicated web of red herrings and dramatic twists makes this a thrilling read about friends who think they know everything there is to know about one another but who all wear masks, one murderously so.

Standout Simile: –

She’s so cold that her teeth are chattering with a sound like someone shaking dice.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley is published by Harper Collins in Australia.

Does Your Novel Have Lots of Loose Ends?

How awesome is it when you’re reading a book and something dramatic, shocking or intriguing happens and you’re like: “Wow, I can’t wait to read on and find out what THAT was all about!”?

Stories make you feel this way because they introduce narrative questions which keep the reader engaged and in a state of suspense, waiting to find out what happens.

There’s the main narrative question that drives the plot (for example, in a murder mystery it may be “Whodunit?”) and this question is generally answered in the climax of the story.

Other narrative questions may be dramatic questions that aren’t the main narrative question, such as: “Why did Miles get dismissed from the police force?” Or emotional questions, like: “How will Bianca feel when she finds out Sylvie betrayed her?” (Pen and the Pad describes four types of narrative questions here).

Each time something happens in the story that raises a question in the mind of the reader, that question must be answered at some point in the novel.

Sounds obvious, right?

However, you might be a writer like me. I have a habit of thinking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” and then raising loads of narrative questions by making characters do weird and wonderful things, but forgetting to answer half of them, or failing to elaborate how these actions make the characters feel.

Or, I will write about a character doing something or behaving in a certain way because they need to do something to drive the plot forward, only I haven’t thought about the logistics of what they need to do.

At the end of my first draft, I had a lot of great events happening, many of which remained unexplained. (To be fair, I’m writing a mystery and a lot of these were red herrings and thus, not directly related to the main plot).

For example, in the first scene of my novel, the main character observes a man wearing a blood-stained shirt emerge from the front door of his house, struggling to carry a mysterious bundle. He then proceeds to drag the bundle around the side of the house. This raises several questions, an obvious one being: “What is in the bundle?” This is not the main narrative question of the novel, but the answer ties back into the main plot line and is revealed in the climax of the novel.

Another question is: “Why does he bring the bundle out the front of his house and drag it around the side, instead of taking it out the back of his house where he is less likely to be seen?” The actual answer to this question is – because I needed the main character, who is parked outside the house, to see him with the bundle. I had to come up with a plausible explanation for why the character does that, within the context of the story.

I’m currently undertaking a process of making sure all of the questions I’ve raised in my story get answered at some point before the final pages. This involves reading through my manuscript and writing down each narrative question as it arises under the relevant chapter heading. I then mark off whether the narrative question has been answered later in the story, and where it has been answered (e.g. page number, chapter number).

It’s then easier for me to see which narrative questions haven’t been answered, so I know that I have to devise some mind-blowing plot reveals to explain them. Ha ha, no problem, she says.

Don’t I sound organised? I assure you, I’m not quite there yet. On my list of narrative questions, there’s a lot of: “Why does such-and-such do this?” And I don’t know yet. But having this checklist makes me feel a bit better and for me, is a step in the right direction to ensuring all loose ends are tied up.

How do you make sure you don’t leave your reader hanging with unanswered narrative questions? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – The Sentence is Death

“When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Daniel Hawthorne

Anthony Horowitz is one of my favourite crime fiction authors so I was very excited to read The Sentence is Death, the follow-up novel to 2017’s The Word is Murder, which introduced us to ex-policeman turned private investigator, Daniel Hawthorne.

A notable feature of this series of murder mysteries is that the author himself, Anthony Horowitz (or ‘Tony’, as Hawthorne calls him) is a character in the book, narrating the story and playing the Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock. The conversational narration and references to what we know to be true of Horowitz’s life (his work as screenwriter on the tv series Foyle’s War, for example) has the reader wondering how much of the story is truly fiction. There’s even a detailed Acknowledgement section at the back, which mentions and thanks both fictional and non-fictional people.

In The Word is Murder, Hawthorne asked Tony to be his biographer – to follow his investigation into the murder of a woman and turn the story into a novel. The Sentence is Death begins with Hawthorne interrupting Tony on the set of Foyle’s War and inviting him to document his investigation of the murder of Richard Pryce, a divorce lawyer who has been battered to death with a wine bottle in his Hampstead home. Tony reluctantly agrees, lamenting how writing about Hawthorne means he can’t begin chapters with a surprising turn of events because he has to “stick to the facts as they happened”, which is one of many ironies in this metafiction, also because the (real) Horowitz has many surprising events in store.

Clues are cleverly placed throughout the story leading to the identity of Pryce’s murder and giving the astute reader the opportunity to solve the mystery. The initial list of suspects include a feminist author who publicly threatened Pryce after losing a divorce battle, her ex-husband and Pryce’s boyfriend. When Hawthorne and Tony uncover a link to a fatal caving accident involving Pryce, the scope of suspects widens to include two widows. Meanwhile, Detective Cara Grunshaw is blackmailing Tony for information on the case, desperate to beat Hawthorne in the race to uncover the murderer.

Running parallel to the murder mystery, and just as interesting, is the relationship between Hawthorne and Tony. Tony tells the reader he struggles with the private and abstruse Hawthorne as a main character, finding him unlikeable and unpleasant (he’s homophobic and prone to casual racism), yet he begins to warm to him, describing the man with the perfectly assembled Airfix kits with “the sense of a child playing at being an adult”.

Horowitz doesn’t shy away from the comparisons to Sherlock and Watson (having penned some Holmes novels himself) as Hawthorne is very much like Holmes, noticing those odd little details that others don’t, while Tony plays the bumbling Watson, thinking he’s got it all figured out, when he’s really been thwarted by Hawthorne’s line of seemingly innocuous questions. The novel also pays homage to a few plot points in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

Horowitz relishes the opportunity to poke fun at himself, at literary devices and at crime fiction tropes. Hawthorne describes Tony as “a bit like a travel writer who doesn’t know quite where he is”, characters confuse Horowitz’s best selling spy-kid Alex Rider series, instead calling it Alec Rider and Eric Rider, and possibly my favourite – the playful use of the pathetic fallacy at the very end of the novel. Very clever!

The Sentence is Death is everything I love about crime fiction – a carefully crafted mystery with a flawless solution, and an interesting cast of suspects each with plausible motives for the crime (and some with a few naughty secrets), as well as a sense of fun, loads of witty moments and some lovely descriptions of London.

‘Tony’ is tied to his three-book deal with Hawthorne, so we can expect a third instalment with a similarly clever title coming soon. I’d also love to see a television adaptation – would Anthony Horowitz play himself playing himself?

The Sentence is Death is published in Australia by Penguin.

Standout Simile: –

There was a few seconds’ delay before people realised what happened. Then the crowd recoiled, forming a pattern like an exploding sun.

My Mum’s Favourite Books of 2018

My usual end of year post would be my favourite books of the year. But I thought, what do I know? Mothers always know best, right? (Although as it turns out, I enjoyed all of these books, too).

My Mum, Sheree, is a prolific reader and she has excellent taste in books (and, as you’ll observe, a penchant for historical fiction). So this year, I’m sharing her thoughts about five of her favourite books from 2018 and what she liked most about them.

The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

From fleeing the Nazi invasion in Vienna, 1939 and the tragedy and brutality of Kristallmacht to the strange, exotic and wonderful Port of Shanghai, Romy Bernfeld’s story is one of great courage, enduring friendship and survival. The war catches up with Romy and her parents again when the Japanese Army overruns China. As I grew up in Hong Kong and my father was a POW on Hong Kong Island during WWII, this story was particularly poignant to me. Kirsty Manning captures brilliantly the uniqueness, frenetic energy, smells and sounds, and atmosphere of Shanghai and the mannerisms and lifestyles of the local people. The story continues to capture the reader when Romy’s granddaughter, Alexandra, returns to modern day Shanghai to search for information on her mother’s natural parents. I was equally enthralled by Kirsty Manning’s description of modern day Shanghai: vibrant, diverse, fascinating. An amazing story, with genuine characters, that could well be about a real-life heroine.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning.

The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

Ida is an endearing and admirable character. Despite her own heartbreak she packs away her lost dreams and keepsakes, rolls up her sleeves and gives all she can to her family. Unlike sister Nora and mother Alice, Ida is selfless. I was reminded how much was unspoken in Ida’s times. One was expected to suppress “uncomfortable” emotions and “get on with it”. This was especially true for women whose sole aspirations in life were being wives and mothers. Sadly, for Ida’s family, this results in unnecessary suffering, shattered dreams, resentment and mental illness. I was relieved that Ida’s character was shown kindness and love from Grandmother, the Godfrey-Smiths and her steadfast husband, Len. Musical talent often runs through families and it disrupts then unites the female characters in Ida’s story. Louise Allen writes with clarity and honesty, which I appreciated along with a final unexpected tragedy that resulted in my shedding quite a few tears. There are some lighter moments that are quite funny thanks to nephew, Ben.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan.

The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

The Paris Seamstress is easily my favourite Natasha Lester book. The story, set in Paris and New York in the 1940’s, intricately and descriptively weaves its way through the lives of its main characters. Estella, headstrong and impetuous, creative and inventive, with a passion for haute-couture; Alex, a courageous and complicated intelligence operative haunted by memories; Lena, a tragic victim of a childhood over which she had no control and Sam, dedicated, talented and steadfast. Natasha Lester writes so you can feel the buzz and optimism of Manhattan’s Garment District, the cool touch of “that” gold dress as it slips over your skin and the horror of life in Nazi-occupied Paris. Such a momentous contrast to the burgeoning fashion industry in New York where champagne flows freely at lavish fashion events. Natasha Lester continues Estella’s story through her granddaughter, Fabienne, living and working as head fashion curator in today’s Sydney before fulfilling her grandmother’s wish and returning to Stella Designs in New York. I enjoyed reading all the French name places (Champs Élysées, Musee de L’Armie des Invalides, Marches des Enfants Rouges, Carreau du Temple, Place des Vosges, in the Marais district) and the French high fashion houses, Lanvin, Dior, Chanel and the American equivalents, Lord & Taylor, Saks, Best & Co, Gimbels. These names add to the glamour and excitement of a really adroit story!

Click here to purchase a copy of The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester.

The Secrets At Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier

What I found so absorbing about The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge was Kali Napier’s talent for telling four stories through the eyes of the four main characters, Ernie, Lily, Girlie and Tommy, and keeping it unblurred and so very readable. Flawed and ordinary people keeping secrets and surviving the hardships suffered by so many during the Great Depression. I didn’t have a favourite character but I did feel great sympathy for Tommy, misunderstood, neglected and abandoned. And Girlie, a child floundering in an adult world seeking approval from a selfish and distant mother. The peripheral residents in this small WA coastal town provided a few more secrets of their own. Largely an unhappy story it is still one of endurance and a sense of loyalty which keeps the family together.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier.

April in Paris, 1921 by Tessa Lunney

Initially, I felt Kiki seemed too young to have so much life experience, but we know how devastating WWI was and how it changed everyone and everything. The horror of Kiki’s nursing memories contrast wildly with her adopted, frivolous bohemian lifestyle as gossip columnist for “The Star”. Endless parties with the rich, titled and famous, political intrigue and a stolen Picasso soon become the backdrop for blackmail when her old spymaster and nemesis tracks her down. Her mission – to seek out a traitor working for an unknown enemy. With the help of resolute friends like Bertie she completes her mission but there were many anxious times when I really thought Kiki was in “well over her head”. Tessa Lunney paints a very colourful picture of Montmartre and the diverse characters that inhabit this story. And, love the descriptions of the flimsy, whimsical fashions!

Click here to purchase a copy of April in Paris, 1921 by Tessa Lunney.

Mystery of the Month – The Corset

Sixteen-year-old seamstress Ruth Butterham is convinced she has the ability to harm others by stitching evil thoughts into her needlework. She is awaiting trial for the murder of her mistress when wealthy Dorothea Truelove meets her in the Oakgate Women’s prison. Dorothea has a keen interest in phrenology and wants to study Ruth’s ‘crania’, believing it to be “the palace of the soul”. She thinks Ruth may be able to change the shape of her skull if she works to amend her murderess ways.

This is the premise of The Corset, the latest gothic mystery from Laura Purcell, author of the very successful Silent Companions – another haunting tale where the reader questions whether the main character is victim to a supernatural evil or human evil.

The story alternates between Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, with Ruth recounting her upbringing with an alcoholic artist father, and ailing mother, who works tirelessly stitching clothes for the demanding Mrs Metyard. After a violent attack by a fellow schoolgirl, Ruth channels her feelings of anger and resentment into the stitching of a corset. A series of tragic events follow, leading Ruth to believe she is responsible – but is she really cursed or is it all coincidence?

The Corset is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Sally Metyard, a mother and daughter who operated a milliner in London in 1758 and who abused an apprentice so badly that she died, resulting in the pair being hung for murder. Ruth is sold by her mother to the fictional version of Mrs Metyard following the death of her father, where she and four other girls are subject to horrific treatment at the hands of Mrs Metyard and her daughter, Kate. Laura Purcell skilfully describes Ruth’s torment, encouraging a great sympathy for her as a character and causing the reader to question how she could possibly be a vindictive killer. However, Dorothea believes Ruth must be lying because her story doesn’t match up with what Dorothea feels in the shape of Ruth’s skull.

Anthropological studies have shown that the tight lacing of corsets could change the skeleton of the wearer and for some, the position of their organs. The metaphor of the suffocating and restrictive corset rings true for both Dorothea and Ruth. Dorothea feels trapped by her father’s expectations of her – she should not be “spouting on about criminals, or science, or any other topics a young lady should be ignorant upon.” He wants her to marry well, but Dorothea compares being a society wife to “standing in a bog” and instead wants to marry a policeman and live in London. Ruth experiences a similar lack of control over her life, unable to escape the clutches of the Metyard’s for fear that harm will come to her mother and believing herself to be the victim of her own hand.

Purcell’s writing is visceral and several scenes make for uncomfortable reading, particularly a description of Ruth’s mother’s graphic childbirth experience and the girls’ violent treatment at the hands of the Metyards. The plot is as expertly woven as Ruth’s handiwork, with a few shocking twists, including one involving Mrs Metyard’s beastly husband, The Captain. The conclusion is tightly sewn, leading the reader to the true villain of the piece. Another triumph for Laura Purcell, The Corset is chilling, brutal and spellbinding reading that leaves no loose threads.

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury Raven.

Standout Simile: –

Evil thoughts float about the house like smuts from a fire. They speckle, they smear, they find a way in.