THE STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 3/5/19
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: a superb, modern take on Gothic suspense
How is this the first time I’ve read a book by Elly Griffiths? There’s no other way to say it: I’ve been missing out. Griffiths’ exceptional standalone THE STRANGER DIARIES is a spring 2019 must-read. Layered and immersive, atmospheric and authentic, this brilliant twist on Gothic suspense will captivate the reader. Following Clare Cassidy, a teacher who specializes in Gothic literature, THE STRANGER DIARIES takes readers into a bookish mystery with sinister undertones. When one of Clare’s closest colleagues is found murdered, Clare is grief-stricken—but things take an ominous turn when a clue is discovered on the corpse that tie the gruesome crime to the work of a Gothic writer who happens to be one of Clare’s favorites. Could life be imitating art? As Clare ventures into the dark heart of the goings on at her place of employment, it begins to appear that this work of fiction is playing out in the real world—to deadly end. In THE STRANGER DIARIES, Griffiths masterfully blends Gothic influence with modern-day suspense sensibility, and the result is effortless, spine-tingling, page-turning fun. Masterfully blurring the lines between reality and fiction, Elly Griffiths has crafted an exceptional bookish mystery that is both an ode to Gothic literature and an effective work of Gothic suspense unto itself.
Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. A high school English teacher specializing in the Gothic writer R. M. Holland, she teaches a course on it every year. But when one of Clare’s colleagues and closest friends is found dead, with a line from R. M. Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger,” left by her body, Clare is horrified to see her life collide with the storylines of her favorite literature.
To make matters worse, the police suspect the killer is someone Clare knows. Unsure whom to trust, she turns to her closest confidant, her diary, the only outlet she has for her darkest suspicions and fears about the case. Then one day she notices something odd. Writing that isn't hers, left on the page of an old diary:
Hallo Clare. You don’t know me.
Clare becomes more certain than ever: “The Stranger” has come to terrifying life. But can the ending be rewritten in time?
What is it about crime novels about books that is just so irresistible? I can’t get enough of mysteries that involve the literary world—and if this describes your reading preferences too, THE STRANGER DIARIES is a must-read. Books are everywhere in this story, from protagonist Clare’s profession (she’s an English teacher who specializes in Gothic literature) to the almost mythic figure of R.M. Holland (the fictional writer whose work Clare specializes in) to the ways this story pays homage to the Gothic tradition in its own content and structure. Elly Griffiths effectively infuses this story of suspense with elements both big and small that will thoroughly satisfy the dedicated bookworm. There’s some meta book appreciation at play here; perhaps one of the most pleasurable moments in THE STRANGER DIARIES comes when Clare is discussing key elements of a Gothic novel… and the reader instantly recognizes those same elements in the book they are holding in their very hands. What I can only imagine to be Griffiths’ own love of this particular kind of literature leaps off the page in the character of Clare; readers will find themselves swept up in her dedication to her work and her almost obsessive interest in her primary subject of study, R.M. Holland. Much of THE STRANGER DIARIES feels like an ode to the power of a really great novel, and I adored every element of this story that tipped its hat to the richness of the literary world.
Central to THE STRANGER DIARIES is the figure of R.M. Holland, a fictional writer of Gothic literature whose work features hugely in Clare’s personal life. Not only does Clare teach Holland’s work in her English courses at school, but she is also hard at work on a biography of Holland, which she hopes to have published one day. And let’s not forget how integral Holland’s short story “The Stranger” is to our story. When Clare’s colleague is found murdered, a line from “The Stranger” is discovered near her corpse. What is the connection? As the book progresses, “The Stranger” appears over and over again—each time, in a way even more sinister and menacing than the last. Griffiths also treats the reader to “excerpts” from the Holland’s short story, interwoven throughout her own novel; these effective passages contribute hugely to the atmosphere and authenticity of THE STRANGER DIARIES, and serve to immerse readers fully in Clare’s world. So now, the big admission that I have to make: I was so taken with Griffiths’ writing about Holland that I actually believed he was a real writer, and went online to try and learn more about him. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to have been so fully tricked by the character of Holland that I believed in his existence, but I like to think of it as proof positive of just how effectively Griffiths crafts this world in which for Clare, and the reader, to operate. Every element of Holland - his history, his writing, his personal backstory - rings true. Griffiths has done a superb job crafting a mysterious central figure for her novel who, though never actively seen on the page, looms large throughout.
THE STRANGER DIARIES is, on many levels, a complex story—but it’s one that Griffiths weaves together masterfully and effortlessly. On top of the Gothic elements that infuse this book’s every page, Griffiths also utilizes multiple narrators to provide unique perspectives on the story’s seemingly inexplicable happenings. While Clare remains our central figure throughout, narrating a majority of the book’s chapters, Griffiths employs two additional female leads to give this story depth and perspective: Georgia, Clare’s daughter, and Harbinder, a police officer investigating the murder of Clare’s colleague. When multiple narrators are done right, they are so effective—and Griffiths sure does them right here. All three women - Clare, Georgia, and Harbinder - bring to THE STRANGER DIARIES their unique backgrounds, personalities, and secrets. Griffiths does a superb job writing each character in a way that feels true to who they are; readers will never for a second lose track of whose chapters they are currently reading, as Griffiths develops each woman with her own distinct voice and perspective. In Griffiths’ talented hands, these characters become conduits through which readers begin to piece together the story’s central mystery. Much like can happen in the real world, “truth” in THE STRANGER DIARIES becomes a moving target, and readers will need the experiences and viewpoints of each narrator to get to the heart of this compelling mystery. And here’s the best part: even if you somehow manage to puzzle out the culprit before they are officially revealed, I would bet that your reading experience will still be excellent, in large part thanks to Griffiths’ depth of plotting and character development.
When you really think about it, what’s not to love about THE STRANGER DIARIES? Academic setting? Check. Elements of Gothic suspense? Check. “Book within a book”-style structure? Check. Compelling female leads? Check. Griffiths does it all, and she does it all so well. THE STRANGER DIARIES is infused with authenticity; the reader can feel the author’s passion for this subject matter leap off the page. if I had to guess right now, I would guess that Griffiths is, herself, a huge fan of Gothic literature, and wrote this book in many ways as an ode to the genre. Well, she’s succeeded, and she’s done it in a big way. Nothing about this book feels “stuffy” or “old”—instead, Griffiths has taken the essential components of a time-honored literary tradition and modernized them, blending these elements with those of a contemporary suspense novel. The result? A story that is accessible and seriously entertaining, while remaining rich in atmosphere as well. THE STRANGER DIARIES is just plain fun to read: it’s immersive, genuinely pleasurable reading material, and well worth your time. In short: I loved this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 5, 2019)
Crime by the Book is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This in no way affects my opinion of the books included in this post.