If you love reading – and you clearly do, if you are reading this blog! – you’ll be drawn in immediately to Elly Griffiths‘ The Stranger Diaries. The book’s protagonist is Clare Cassidy, a divorced single mom/high school English teacher, who aspires to write a biography of (fictional) author R.M. Holland. The mystery centers around the death by stabbing of Clare’s colleague, Ella. That death, and others that follow, reflect murders recounted in Holland’s short story, “The Stranger.” In fact, Griffiths’ book opens with the beginning of that short story, in a framing device that sets the stage for the suspense that follows.
But is it a stranger who murdered Ella? Or is it, as Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur and her partner believe, someone much closer? There is no dearth of suspects, from Clare herself – very unlikely – to Ella’s stalkerish boss. He looks a good bet, as he has a history of obsessive behavior. A good bet, that is, until he is murdered as well.
Diaries play a prominent role in the book, not surprisingly. DS Kaur examines social media – a very public kind of diary – for clues. Clare’s daughter Georgia keeps her diary online, at a website called mysecretdiary.com, and so do her friends. Clare has kept one since childhood, filling a series of notebooks. In fact, the first clue that Clare has a connection of some kind to the murderer comes when she discovers a note in her diary. It starts “Greetings from a sincere friend…” quoting Wilkie’s Woman in White, and goes on to promise to fall upon those who work agains Clare “like a ravening beast.” The handwriting is unfamiliar. What stranger has been in her house? And how does he – or she – know Clare?
A nice subplot is Clare’s determination to unearth the facts behind the suggested suicide of Alice Avery, R.M. Holland’s wife, and the related question of the mysterious Mariana, whose presence comforted Holland following her death. Thought to be their daughter, no records or photos of Mariana exist. Hmmmmm….
Griffiths writes in first person from three different perspectives: Clare, DS Kaur, and daughter Georgie. It works well, and I was struck by how the same scene is recounted differently by each of the three, giving the reader greater insight into the characters. Showing the three women independently also highlights how little people really know about one another.
Suspects are presented and discarded throughout the book, the body count mounts and tension ramps up, and soon after DS Kaur encourages Clare and Georgie to leave town for their safety, the plot takes thriller-ish as the unknown bad guy follows the pair while the cops race to get there in time to stop more mayhem. You think you know who it is… you don’t! In a smaller and also satisfying conclusion, the Mariana mystery is also solved.
Here’s my take on The Stranger Diaries: Griffiths is a good writer. The three-POVs works very well. Her characters are interesting and believable. The literary references and creative writing scenarios add a lot of fun (for me). The gothic aspects (hauntings, historical memorabilia, etc.) are atmospheric and heighten the drama. The violence is not gratuitous. One quibble is that boss Rick Lewis really get off quite lightly from the #metoo perspective (although he does get murdered, so perhaps that is punishment enough). A more meaningful concern is that the real perpetrator is masked by the way he is presented from Georgie’s point of view, and it is hard to believe that he could fool her so completely.
So, where does The Stranger Diaries rank? Definitely below Robotham’s masterful Good Girl, Bad Girl, but I’m going to place it above The River. While not as lyrical as Heller, Griffiths’ writing is very effective with its multiple viewpoints and the inclusion of the original short story “by” R.M. Holland.
Side note… there is a wealth of Elly Griffiths books available, including at least one other that features Harbinder Kaur. I’m there.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel