Book review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths
****


Perspective is perhaps the most important factor in any crime novel, since you're completely dependent on what the narrator tells you, which is why many crime fiction novels have multiple perspectives from different characters. It's a literary device, and it's one that any crime writer will be aware of and use to their advantage, not so much to provide a wider view as provide conflicting views that add to the mystery and tension. Take this far enough and you have Elly Griffiths The Stranger Diaries, where literary references and creative writing techniques all play a part in the construction and purpose of the crime, creating a little masterclass of crime writing, as well as being a clever little crime fiction mystery in itself.

The Stranger Diaries even opens with a little bit of literary trickery that sets the tone quite effectively. A man sits down in a train carriage on a presumably dark and stormy evening and proceeds to tell the person sharing the carriage the strange events that have led him to this place. It's a dark gothic tale of secret societies and a series of deaths, with mysterious messages that follow and always seem to find him him as he tries to escape from a similar fate. It is however just a story, R M Holland's The Stranger, that is being used as an example by a teacher of a creative writing course. What she doesn't realise (he portentously notes) is that soon she will be come embroiled in a dark take of murder and mystery that will rival anything by R M Holland.

Clare Cassidy is in fact an English teacher at a Sussex school, Talgarth High, and as well as taking a creative writing course, she is also planning to write a book on R M Holland, a Victorian writer who once lived in the house that is now the very same school where she teaches. The author's writing room is still preserved intact at the top of the school, and there are several mysteries attached to the author's time there, including sightings of a ghost, the White Lady, who is said to appear when there is about to be a death. And indeed one of Clare's teaching colleagues and close friends is found murdered at her home, the note attached to her declaring that "Hell is Empty!", a reference to Holland's The Stranger, a quote that also comes from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Like a good Victorian writer, Clare keeps a diary where in addition to noting important observations about Strictly Come Dancing, she has recorded some interesting information that could provide the police with clues to the killer. Clare is unwilling to share her innermost confessions to the police however, but someone has already seen her diary and make a note in it in the same hand as the writer of the "Hell is Empty!" note. So that it doesn't get entirely wrapped up in Gothic murder melodrama - although the clever characterisation of Clare's as an aspirational single mum with romantic frustrations plays in contrast to that - Elly Griffith's also introduces the perspectives of a no-nonsense police officer DS Harbinder Kaur (who was once partial to the odd James Herbert book), and also the view point of Clare's daughter Georgia, who is going through a difficult phase with boys, and in her relationship to her father.

What we don't have (thankfully, since it's a bit of a cliche and rarely works well) is the deranged perspective of the actual killer as they reveal their obsessions and plans for further murders; all in italics of course. Instead we have the continuing tale related by the Stranger on the train (in Gothic italics), which retains a knowing character of the nature of the literary murder mystery, as well as being related in some strange way to the killings and perhaps even the mystery of the author R M Holland himself. It's all skillfully managed and neatly tied together by Elly Griffiths, balancing the everyday reality (and satire of everyday lives and attitudes) with the Gothic melodrama, with plenty of people behaving very suspiciously to choose from, and plenty of twists and turns to satisfy more than just creative writing demands.

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