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The Stranger Diaries (review)

21 January 2019

The Stranger DiariesThe Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A rather good whodunit wrapped in a ghost story.

One of the problems with reading a good book immediately after reading a bad one is that one is likely to see the good one as better and the bad one as worse than it actually was. When I started reading this book my relief was enormous because it was so much better than the one I had just finished reading. Since they are of similar genres I can’t help comparing them.

The bad book was The Seal by Meg Hutchinson writing as Margaret Astbury and my main review of it is here: Foiling a satanic plot to destroy the world.

My reason for writing a comparative review is not simply that I read them consecutively and the contrast in quality, but they also shared a similar overlapping genre, what one might call the “supernatural thriller”, though The Seal failed to thrill where The Stranger Diaries succeeded.

In both books there is a murder investigation by the police, and in both there is a supernatural agent of death that, once summoned, will not depart without killing someone.

In The Stranger Diaries high school English teacher Clare Cassidy is upset when her friend and colleague Ella Elphick is murdered, and in her hand is found a note with a quotation from a horror story which was written by R.M. Holland, whose house forms part of the school where they both taught, and where the ghost of Holland’s wife Alice is said to walk. Clare Cassidy is collecting material to write a book on Holland, which makes this a literary whodunit,

The story is told from the viewpoint of three narrators: Clare Cassidy, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, who is investigating the murder, and was herself a former pupil at the school. and Clare’s teenage daughter Georgia Newton, who is a pupil at the school where her mother teaches.

What was immediately refreshing when I started reading it was the clear prose of Elly Griffiths, especially when contrasted with the turgid and turbid prose of Meg Hutchinson writing as Margaret Astbury. When Griffiths mentions the characters eating or drinking, it helps to create a picture of how the character is feeling or relating to other characters at that moment; when Hutchinson writing as Astbury mentions characters eating or drinking, it is a hiatus, a break, an interruption in the flow of the narrative. It contributes nothing to the story and looks as though it was inserted merely to increase the word count.

Griffiths writes about three-dimensional characters, partly through the device of having three narrators, so the three main characters are seen through their own eyes as well as through the eyes of the others. The way in which the three narrators see other people also tells a lot about their own character. Hutchinson writing as Astbury, on the other hand, stresses one characteristic of each of the main characters, all from the point of view of the omniscient narrator.

If The Stranger Diaries has a weakness, it is perhaps that it is too much embedded in time and place. If anyone reads it in 50 years’ time it might be possible to overcome some of this with a glossary to explain what Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are (I must admit that though I use Facebook and Twitter, I don’t really know what Instagram and Snapchat are for). But even a glossary could not really explain all the character by TV show references. I have seen Strictly come dancing and even “got” it when it was was originally referred to as “Strictly…“. I’ve also seen University Challenge, though not enough to have got the reference.  But I’ve never seen Friends, and have no idea what watching it says about a person’s character.

There were one or two odd uses of language.

I don’t think a Victorian writer of ghost stories would say that someone was “devastated” by the death of someone else. Elly Griffiths (and her editor) might also like to check on the difference between an epithet and an epigram.

But apart from these minor niggles it was a very enjoyable book (and yes, I’m aware that all the best writing how-to columnists tell you it’s very bad form to say “very”).

View all my reviews

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