RogerBW's Blog

The Stranger Diaries, Elly Griffiths 31 August 2021

2018 mystery. Clare Cassidy's fellow teacher Ella Elphick has been stabbed to death, in a way that suggests more than casual killing. A further death, and other odd events, suggest that someone is modelling the crimes on The Stranger, a story by an obscure Victorian author that forms part of her creative writing course.

This is a mystery with literary flair. Apart from the notional R. M. Holland, these people read: Wilkie Collins, Georgette Heyer, P. G. Wodehouse, are all mentioned in passing. While it's always a bit iffy for a writer to refer to other books (and two out of the three are better writers, by my lights anyway), here it makes sense to explain the characters, and particularly how Cassidy and DS Harbinder Kaur, the principal investigator, find things to clash about in spite of their overall similarity of attitude.

I'd benefit too, I thought vaguely; a dog would keep me fit and allow me to meet other dog-walkers. Much better than a book club where there was always the danger that someone would suggest The Girl on the Train.

Regular readers will know that I have my own rules for how mysteries should work in order not to feel like a cheat. This book follows them. Nobody here is a liar, or "unreliable narrator". The dog lives. Literarily competent authors often seem to feel they need to go outside the mould to do Their Thing, and thereby lose the point of the story-form completely; this isn't one of those books.

All right, there are three narrative voices, but this allows everything to be told in tight first-person perspective. (Sometimes the same scene from different angles, which helps show good intentions going wrong.) There's a most obvious suspect, and a more subtle suspect, neither of whom is the actual murderer, whom I didn't spot.

And perhaps I'm just happy to be outfoxed by an author I haven't met before, who has written several other books that I can now look forward to. But I think there's a sense of enjoyment here that I've been missing in other things I've read lately; this is smart writing that still has a head of department asking Clare to cover up his little indiscretion…

‘Thank you,’ he says. And I’m embarrassed to see the relief in his face. ‘It’s just… [my wife]’s very vulnerable at the moment.’

This strikes me as low, even for Rick.

‘It was over,’ he says. ‘It was over between me and Ella back in the summer.’

Back in the summer is not that long ago and, before that, Rick was telling me that he’d kill himself if I didn’t sleep with him. I’m surprised at the anger that suddenly surges through me.

The victim was neither a saint nor a devil. The same applies to everyone we meet; they all have their good and bad points. There's a decent sense of place. The writing is competent and pleasant. Basically, Griffiths has done nothing wrong here, and many things right.

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  1. Posted by Rand Brittain at 05:16am on 11 September 2021

    Picked this one up on your recommendation. Was extremely impressed by the writing and characters, but found the ending disappointing.

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  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:41am on 12 September 2021

    Eek, the responsibility!

    I see your point, and I can't say you're wrong; the revelation of the murderer worked for me, but it needed a lot of authorial concealment. Still, I get a feeling of "cheat!" when I think there genuinely aren't enough clues (as opposed to my having failed to use the clues I was given), and I didn't have it here.

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