In the beginning we meet Clare Cassidy, an attractive, divorced, school teacher and single mum living in West Sussex with her teenage daughter and much-loved dog. She teaches creative writing in the English Department of Talgarth High, the same school that her daughter Georgie attends. Her ex-husband, Simon, is a lawyer who lives and works in London with his new wife and their two young children.
Clare’s world is rocked when she learns that her friend and colleague, Ella Elphick, has been murdered. As the police investigate the murder, Clare searches through her own diaries to try to spur her memory of an event that might be relevant to the investigation. When she does, she finds that someone else had written in her diary! She reports this to DS Harbinder Kaur. The two women become unlikely, tentative friends – despite themselves.
We hear directly from DS Kaur. We hear about her home and work life. She is gay, in her mid-thirties, and living at home with her Sikh parents who still treat her like a child. She enjoys her mother’s Indian cooking and her father’s doting attention, though she spends most of her time at work so that she won’t be roped into serving at her parent’s convenience store. Harbinder is a former student of Talgarth High and loves books and libraries.
As a side “story within a story“, Clare is writing a book on R.M. Holland, an author who once had his office in the school where she works. In particular, she writes about “The Stranger“, a short, spooky, gothic, crime story that he wrote. It soon becomes clear to all involved that the murderer is taking passages from that story to leave messages for Clare…
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
Meanwhile, we hear from Georgie, Clare’s fifteen-year-old daughter. We learn of her older boyfriend, the creative writing class that she keeps secret from her Mum, and her postings to an online forum called “SecretDiaries.com”. Her creative writing teacher, Bryony Hughes, works at another school and identifies as a ‘white witch’. She gives each of her students a black obsidian stone to guard against evil spirits.
Then, there is a second teacher murdered at Talgarth High…
“Stranger Diaries” has three distinct narrators and I was engaged with all three. I enjoyed how the three narrators sometimes spoke of the same event, so that you could learn their differing perspectives – both of the event and of each other. If I had to pick a favourite character it would definitely be DS Harbinder Kaur. A petite, though fierce, young policewoman, she is a force to be reckoned with. Her character was written with empathy and humour.
The setting of the novel was atmospheric in the extreme. Clare’s house was isolated and in the shadow of an abandoned factory. Talgarth High had a new school, and an old school which housed R.M. Holland’s study which was accessed up a Victorian spiral staircase.
The ending of the story which took place in Ullapool, Scotland, was exceedingly suspenseful, and tied up all loose ends. The sign of a well-written, joy-to-read, murder mystery.
The book, though a ‘stand-alone’ was one which (in my humble opinion) could easily be morphed into a series. I really hope this happens. I want more of DS Kaur and Clare Cassidy. Elly Griffiths…. are you listening?
Overall, I found this novel to be an intelligently written, literary murder mystery with an outstanding cast of well-developed characters.
I received a complimentary digital copy of “The Stranger Diaries” from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Edelweiss. I was delilghted to provide a review.
Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica de Rosa. She was born in London and now lives with her husband, two children and cat in East Sussex. Elly is the author of the popular Ruth Galloway mystery series and the Stephens and Mephisto novels. She read English at King’s College London and, after graduating, worked in a library, for a magazine and then as a publicity assistant at HarperCollins. All this completely put her off writing and it wasn’t until she was on maternity leave in 1998 that she wrote what would become her first published novel, The Italian Quarter.
Follow Elly Griffiths on Twitter.