The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

“Hell is empty!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.

* * * * *

Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.

The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
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27 thoughts on “The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

  1. So very glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan. There’s no doubt that Griffiths is skilled at drawing the reader into characters’ lives, and at building up the suspense at just the right pace. She’s versatile, too, which makes me respect her all the more.

    • I love that she’s versatile, especially since, as you know, I’ve fallen out of love with her Ruth Galloway series. So it’s great for me to have her doing new things. This one really appealed to me with its connection to Victorian horror stories – she did the whole thing very well! 😀

  2. I’m so delighted that this new Griffiths book worked so well for you. I’m still trying to decide if I’ll go ahead and order it or wait until it comes out over here in the spring. I may wait. And, yes, I’m pretty sure I’ll agree with you that I’d like this author to do a few standalone books. So many people have trouble keeping up with or even sampling a series.

    • I wonder why it’s not coming out over there for so long – odd! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did whenever you get hold of it. 😀 Yes, I get tired of trying to keep up with series and I also find that most series get a bit bogged down in the protagonists’ lives after a while. I’ve come to the conclusion recently that I’m a big fan of standalones!

  3. A brilliant review of one of my favourite reads of this year – this did have a bit of everything for everyone and for me to enjoy it so much when I usually run a mile at the mere mention of ghosts and ghoulies says a great deal. I’m delighted to see between us we have convinced Madame Bibliophile too 🙂

    • Isn’t it a great book? I loved the Victorian ghost story aspect – I thought the actual story of The Stranger stood up very well on its own. (I’m seriously tempted to use it as a Tuesday Terror story sometime…) And, like you, I grew very fond of Harbinder’s voice as the book went on. Haha – we’re quite effective when we hunt in a pack… 😉

  4. It’s so hard to review a book that’s meant to be only read and not read about! I had that problem with a thriller novel a few years ago. There was so much to tell, but I couldn’t really tell anything. I focused more on the quality of the audio narrator.

    • Haha – I know. I always find it quite hard to review crime books that get revealed slowly because you don’t want to give too much away. I hadn’t read any reviews of this before I read it, and it made such a difference!

    • I also love her other series which doesn’t get so much publicity for some reason – maybe because it’s historical – the Stephens and Mephisto books. She’s a great writer! 😀

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