ARTICLE – REVIEW (December 2018)

This Gothic, amusing tale from three angles will chill your spine

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

 

Reviewed – and enjoyed! – by CAROLYN PERCY

AS an English teacher, and expert on the work of Victorian Gothic writer R.M. Holland,Clare Cassidy is no stranger to stories of murder. But it still comes as a shock when her friend and colleague is brutally killed.

What’s even more sinister is the message found by her body: “Hell is empty.” A line from the Holland short story “The Stranger”.

Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur is convinced that this holds the key to the case. Meanwhile, Clare’s teenage daughter Georgia is harbouring secrets of her own.

As events continue to spiral in an ever more disturbing direction, Clare confides her thoughts and fears to her diary, only to begin to find messages from someone who isn’t her.

Elly Griffiths is already well-known for her Dr Ruth Galloway series and the Stephens and Mephisto Mysteries, and with The Stranger Diaries she has managed to create a stand-alone that will appeal to those for whom the genre doesn’t normally appeal and still satisfy those who will be expecting a good murder mystery, through a clever melding of Gothic and thriller conventions.

Firstly, through setting. The majority of the action takes place in and around Talgarth High, the secondary school in the Sussex countryside where Clare works, Georgia attends and DS Kaur used to attend – specifically its old building, Holland House, where R.M. Holland once lived.

With its forbidden room – a la ‘Bluebeard’ – up in the tower (Holland’s preserved study), accessible only by a footprint-imprinted staircase, and rumours of its own resident ghost, the ‘White  Lady’ (Holland’s ill-fated wife Alice, who fell to her death), whose appearance is supposed to herald death, it’s the perfect Gothic pile – ominous and almost omnipresent and very much a character in its own right.

Elly Griffiths

There are also some other great set-pieces, including a derelict cement factory, whose grim façade looms menacingly over the row of houses where Clare and Georgia live. This atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that the story takes place in the dark evenings of late October/early November, encompassing Halloween. (As one of Clare’s creative writing students points out, it may be cliché but it works.)

Secondly, through character and structure. The story is told from the alternating points of view of Clare, DS Kaur and Georgia, between which are extracts from ‘The Stranger’ itself (which, as intended, reads very much like a typical Victorian ghost story, in the vein of someone like M.R. James and is printed as a full story at the end of the book).

Each of the three narrators are well-rounded characters that bring something different to the table – DS Kaur brings a shot in the arm of cynicism and scepticism, for example. Meanwhile Georgia (through the influence of a creative writing teacher who also claims to be a white witch) is interested in the supernatural, which adds another spooky flavour to the proceedings.

Seeing the same events through different viewpoints not only adds complexity and lets the reader make connections and piece the clues together, but also allows for some dark humour, particularlyfrom DS Kaur, whose observations of people and events are often dryly acerbic.

(Anyone who’s been part of a creative writing course will find Clare’s sessions so ‘on the nose’ it’s hilarious.)

Even though this is a stand-alone, the characters are ones you’ll want to spend more time with once it’s over.

The story builds to a satisfying conclusion, the more Gothic elements taking more of a backseat as everything is tied together. But don’t be tempted to skip past the full version of ‘The Stranger’ at the end of the book, for it’s only here you’ll find the story’s proper ending. And it will leave you with a lingering chill down your spine.

 

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths is published by Quercus and is available as a hardback now.

CAROLYN PERCY contributes reviews to Horla and other publications. Among other qualifications she has a master’s in Creative Writing.

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