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THE STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiths: Book Review

Can a curse from a long-dead writer actually hang over into today?  Can the works of Gothic horror author R. M. Holland bring death to teachers at Talgarth High?

Clare Cassidy is an elementary school teacher in England who also teaches an adult creative writing class.  In that class she has been discussing The Stranger with her students.  What makes the short story particularly horrifying to us, she tells her class, is that Holland actually wrote it in the very building we are in now.  Clare, in fact, is in the process of writing Holland’s biography, although after a good start the words seem to have dried up for her.  She wants to write the story of the mysterious author whose wife’s spirit is reputed to haunt the halls of the house where the couple lived, a house that now is the location of the school’s English department.

And she would also like to clear up the identity of the mysterious Mariana whom Holland refers to in his letters.  Was she his daughter, his previously-unknown second wife, a mistress?  Clare is convinced that if she can solve this issue, her book will definitely be picked up by a publisher.

Now, as she exits her classroom, she receives a phone call from the head of the English department, Rick Lewis.  He’s so sorry to tell her, he says, that her colleague and close friend, Ella, is dead.  Not only dead, but murdered.

Clare knows something about Ella she decides not to share with the police when they question her, that a few months ago Ella had a very brief fling with Rick during an off-site teacher training course.  Although Ella had had an affair that ended badly with the head of the English department at her former school, she apparently didn’t learn from that experience and allowed herself to spend the weekend with the married Rick.

What Clare didn’t tell Ella at the time, although she was extremely angry with her, was that Rick had attempted to start an affair with her earlier in the semester, using the same words, “I’m ill with you,” to express his uncontrollable desire.  Clare berates Ella for her foolishness and writes in the diary that she keeps that she doesn’t think she’ll ever forgive her.  But now that Ella is dead, Clare is feeling guilty.

Clare’s diary is very important to her.  Although she has fallen behind in her biography of Holland, she never misses a day writing in her diary.  So when she re-reads the entry she wrote when Ella told her she was planning on spending the night with Rick, she’s stunned to find a note written at the bottom of that page, in very small capital letters–HALLO, CLARE.  YOU DON’T KNOW ME.

Adding to her sadness about Ella’s death and her less-than-truthful interview with the police, Clare is he concern about her teenage daughter Georgie dating Ty, a young man several years older than she is.

The Stranger Diaries is a terrific book.  Clare, Georgie, Clare’s ex-husband Simon, Georgie’s boyfriend Ty, and even the deceased Ella who is killed before the novel opens, are totally realistic characters that Elly Griffiths skillfully brings to life.  This is a mystery that will keep you enthralled until the last pages.

You can read more about Elly Griffiths at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.