Book Review – The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Published: 1st November 2018
Genre: Mystery/Crime
Trigger warnings: Animal harm, sexual references

This was a buddy read with my friend Gem. It was seventh one and while not our best, we still had some very fun discussions!

Death lies between the lines.

A dark story has been brought to terrifying life. Can the ending be rewritten in time?

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. As a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer R.M. Holland, she teaches a short course on it every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an R.M. Holland story by her body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case.

Not knowing who to trust, and afraid that the killer is someone she knows, Clare confides her darkest suspicions and fears about the case to her journal. Then one day she notices some other writing in the diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

This was a different kind of mystery, one that contained several original ideas and a wide variety of narrative techniques. Told from the perspectives of three different characters and with its own literary spin, there was a lot to admire in the writing although it was undermined by some contrived plot elements, and a serious lack of tension until the closing stages.

The first book in a series featuring DS Harbinder Kaur, it takes inspiration from classic mystery novels to create a somewhat Gothic vibe while also exploring some more contemporary themes. Initially it was difficult to feel a connection to the story, but once the direction it was taking became clear and the plot started to fall into place, it turned into a fairly decent read.

Clare Cassidy is an English teacher at Talgarth High School, the former home of noted author R.M. Holland, whose work she also studies. When her friend and colleague Ella Elphick – with whom she recently had a falling out – is found stabbed to death in a manner similar to the events of Holland’s short story The Stranger, she realises that somebody knows her darkest secrets and is acting upon them.

The police investigation is led by DS Harbinder Kaur and she immediately senses that much of the case revolves around Clare, who is also treated as a suspect. That becomes even more apparent when other people who Clare has written negative things about in her diary are also murdered or attacked. Very few people have access to the diary, but someone else has written in it and they do not mean well.

Despite an enticing concept it does take rather a long time to get going and things only start to get genuinely interesting and intense much later on when more incidents have taken place and the pool of suspects has grown wider. I really appreciated the R.M. Holland aspect and the added dimension it brought to the story, for without that and the cryptic messages in Clare’s diary, the mystery would have been distinctly lightweight.

As it was, the plot just about manages to maintain a degree of intrigue that increases towards the end, where the pace speeds up rapidly and it switches narrators very frequently. The identity of the killer was not a huge surprise although the author does try her best to throw you off the scent with some red herrings, which made for entertaining reading even if they were on the fanciful side.

The book is told mostly in the first person and split into parts, written from the perspectives of Harbinder, Clare, and her daughter Georgia. None of these points of view made for particularly captivating reading and as a result, there were moments early on where this made me feel no connection to the story whatsoever, but things did improve as the plot gathered momentum.

It begins with Clare, and her chapters are often interspersed with passages from her diary that are partially written in shorthand. She came across as a bit of a snob and at first and it seemed she could turn out to be an unreliable narrator, such was her evasiveness during police interviews and the complex relationships she had with other characters.

Harbinder’s point of view gives the book a very different tone, and it is told in such a way that you always know what she is thinking. She is perceptive, has a rather cynical outlook on life, and does not always do policing by the book. If you are looking for an engaging protagonist you may be a tiny bit disappointed, but her personality undoubtedly shines through.

With Clare being a suspect, it was interesting at first to get Harbinder’s perspective from the other side of the investigation, but in doing so certain scenes were rehashed which felt was unnecessary. All the same, I quite liked how she was given a lot of development and backstory, and her sardonic voice did grow on me after a while.

When Georgia’s perspective is introduced, you find that she is a much more multi-layered character than you have been led to believe. Whereas she comes across as a stereotypical teenager through Clare’s eyes, she is actually independent and quite sophisticated, but for some reason she does not seem so fazed by the events at her school.

For the most part the writing was very good, for it is eloquent and clear, setting the scene with some well chosen words. There is a discernible atmosphere present throughout that owes a lot to the inclusion of The Stranger and the influence it has on the characters, but there were two major issues. One was the fact there was too much telling instead of showing, and the other was the almost total lack of tension. It suddenly arrives towards the end, but it was a bit too late to leave an impact.

The ending itself is a flurry of activity, some of which was very exciting to read and did at least lift the book slightly higher in my estimation. It did rely heavily on a few unlikely coincidences and one or two things that were not properly explained, however it gave the story the injection of energy it needed and helped to showcase Harbinder as someone slightly more compelling.

Overall, I can understand what the author was trying to achieve with this book and indeed some of it was very well executed, in particular the writing and the literary twist on the case. Yet it certainly had its flaws and they combined to make it more of a mixed bag, as it just took too long for me to feel a connection towards the story. That said, I would be more than open to reading more of this series.

Elly Griffiths turned to crime novels with the DI Ruth Galloway series, which began with the release of The Crossing Places in 2009. A prolific author, she has written 13 books in that series and has also written mystery novels aimed towards younger age groups. The DS Harbinder Kaur series will continue with The Postscript Murders, set for publication in March 2021.

She lives in Brighton along with her two children and her husband, who helped to inspire the DI Ruth Galloway series.

Not the most thrilling crime novel I have ever read, but despite the flaws it is a perfectly good read once it gets going.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐

8 thoughts on “Book Review – The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

  1. I love reading your reviews Stephen, this one sounds good, it’s too bad it flopped a bit for you, but I think I will give it a try! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with your thoughts on this book, Stephen. I remember when I read it that I also felt it had the potential to be great but the pace was always off. This author has another book which will be published this year though so I hope that one will be better. Hope you enjoy your next read more!

    Liked by 2 people

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