Written by Elly Griffiths — She’s one of crime writing’s most versatile authors, creator of the hugely popular Dr Ruth Galloway series and four Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. Elly Griffiths also has a number of romantic novels written under her real name, Domenica de Rosa. Now she’s come up with a spooky standalone, perfectly timed for the dark winter nights to come.
Clare Cassidy is something of an expert on the work of Gothic writer RM Holland, whose most famous story, The Stranger, has a central role in this book. She’s also an English teacher at Talgarth High, a West Sussex school which has strong links to Holland – he lived in what is now referred to as The Old Building, the top floor of which is out of bounds to students these days.
The school has had its problems and boasts a new, progressive head brought in to change its fortunes, but the Old Building is a reminder of Talgarth’s former glories. It is a chilly place with an atmosphere to match and legend has it that the ghost of Holland’s wife haunts the corridors.
Clare’s teenage daughter Georgie is fascinated by ghosts and by Holland’s most famous story, and the two worlds are destined to collide in dramatic fashion. The Stranger is a story filled with mysterious demises, and death occurs pretty swiftly in The Stranger Diaries too when Clare’s colleague and friend Ella Elphick is found murdered, multiple stab wounds the cause of her death, a snippet of text from The Stranger at her side. If that’s not unsettling enough, Clare begins to find cryptic entries in her personal diary, written in a strange hand. How are they getting there and what do they mean?
DS Harbinder Kaur, called in to investigate Ella’s death is also a former pupil at Talgarth. Her local knowledge could prove useful as she and colleague DS Neil Winston struggle to put a case together, but when another death occurs it appears that Clare Cassidy is the link…
Secrets are at the very heart of this unsettling tale. Clare has kept her diary under wraps since she was a teenager, and ironically Georgie is now also writing on the quiet, submitting her work to an online forum, encouraged by the enigmatic Bryony Hughes, a teacher at the nearby private school St Faith’s. Georgie is among a group of teenagers who are mentored by Miss Hughes – an odd woman who is rumoured to be a white witch. By conjuring up shades of Cathbad from the Galloway series, Griffiths manages to turn the spookiness up another notch.
More secrets are introduced to keep you on your toes – why is Georgie’s fellow writing friend Patrick being so furtive? What does Clare’s head of department Rick have to hide? What’s behind the mysterious lights in the abandoned factory at the end of Clare’s street? It’s an exciting ride as Griffiths gently nudges and cajoles her readers along the road to enlightenment.
The Stranger Diaries has an interesting format, the story told from several viewpoints, interspersed with passages from Holland’s magnum opus, The Stranger. As modern-day life mirrors that Gothic tale it can be tricky to decide who is actually telling the truth – so keep your wits about you.
Clare Cassidy is a hugely realistic if rather irritating main protagonist while her daughter Georgie is beautifully observed, but I found myself warming to Harbinder Kaur in particular. She’s a career police office caught between the pull of two cultures and an intuitive, down to earth and likeable creation. I’d be delighted to make her acquaintance again.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars