‘If you permit me,’ said the Stranger, ‘I’d like to tell you a story. After all, it’s been a long journey and, by the look of those skies, we’re not going to be leaving this carriage for some time. So, why not pass the hours with some story-telling? The perfect thing for a late October evening.’
‘Are you quite comfortable there? Don’t worry about Herbert. He won’t hurt you, It’s just this weather that makes him nervous. Now, where was I? What about some brandy to keep the chill out? You don’t mind a hip flask, do you?
‘Well, this is a story that actually happened. Those are the best kind, don’t you think? Better still, it happened to me when I was a young man. About your age.’
The Stranger Diaries is Elly Griffiths’ delightful homage to Gothic novels. It’s a book within a book, containing a gratifying mix of mystery, suspense, gloomy settings, horror, deaths, supernatural events, a damsel in distress, a villain, and more. In short, it’s the perfect treat to indulge in before Halloween.
When the book opens, Clare Cassidy is reading the beginning of a fictional horror story, The Stranger, to her adult literature class. (The author, equally fictional R.M. Holland, is so believable that I, along with at least one other reviewer, felt tempted to look him up on the Internet.) Clare teaches English to young teens at Talgarth High School, and also holds adult literature and creative writing classes during the school breaks. Her adult classes are taught in the old, original annex of the school, Holland House. In fact, the study where R.M. Holland himself wrote is located in the attic of this annex. Clare is somewhat obsessed by The Stranger – and its author – and plans to write a biography of Holland.
“When I found out (about Holland’s connection to the school), it seemed like a sign,” Clare writes in her diary. “I would teach English by day and, in the evenings, inspired by my surroundings, I would write about Holland; about his strange, reclusive life, the mysterious death of his wife, his missing daughter…. But recently – I don’t know why – the words have dried up.”
Clare and her colleague Ella Elphick, both attractive women in their mid-forties, had been hired at the same time to help boost student scores at Talgarth High, and they often socialized outside of work. Ella is not married and had a brief, unfortunate fling with their married head of the English Department, Rick Lewis, at a weekend conference.
Clare, her teenage daughter, Georgie, and a dog named Herbert (after the dog in The Stranger) live in West Sussex among a row of town houses backed by a large, empty cement factory with broken windows. Clare writes “The houses stay on, though, pretty and gentrified, facing a meadow with grazing cows and resolutely ignoring the nightmare edifice behind them….But once in a while I catch the sight of the factory and all those gaping windows and think: why would anyone choose to live here?” (Later, another character, a detective, says, “I always wondered who would live in this row of houses, so close to the old cement works.” Her partner replies, “It’s haunted. Did you hear about the child who fell in the cement? Apparently you can still hear her crying at night.”)
At the end of Chapter One, Clare’s department head, Rick, calls with bad news. Clare writes in her diary: “Ella is dead….But when Rick said ‘murdered,’ it was as if he was talking a different language…. I still couldn’t put the pieces together. Ella. My friend. My colleague. My ally in the English Department. Murdered…. And then I had to go back to my class and teach them about ghost stories. But The Stranger always does its bit, especially as it was dark by the time I’d finished.”
Clare’s students ask about Holland’s wife, Alice Avery, who allegedly haunts the building. “R.M. Holland married a woman called Alice Avery,” I say. “They lived here, in this house, and Alice died, possibly from a fall down the stairs. Her ghost is meant to walk the place. You see her gliding along the corridors on the first floor or even floating down the stairs. Some people say that if you see her, it’s a sign that a death is imminent.”
When Clare and Georgie return home, retrieving Herbert from Doggy Day Care, they see a detective’s car parked in front of their home. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, a no-nonsense Indian female, is investigating the crime along with her partner, Neil Winston. She informs Clare that it is not likely that a stranger killed Ella, as Clare first thought, but it was someone who knew her. They ask about ex-boyfriends, but nobody comes to Clare’s mind that she is willing to share, for she is unwilling to discuss Ella’s brief affair with Rick Lewis. A note has been left by Ella’s body, saying “Hell is empty,” a quote from The Stranger.
Soon afterwards, Clare receives a letter from Henry Hamilton, a professor at Cambridge. He offers to show her several letters written by Holland if she would like to visit him at his college in a week or two. Clare takes Georgie with her, and they ponder the identity of the mysterious “Marianna,” who may be Holland’s wife’s daughter, isn’t photographed, doesn’t appear to have a grave, and has “inherited her mother’s taint.”
All of these elements add to the Gothic feel of the book: the town house in front of the large, deserted cement factory; Ella’s death and the note left with the body, which were lifted from Holland’s short story; and, of course, the mysterious Marianna with her “mother’s taint.” Worst of all, someone has written in Clare’s diary, which she keeps in a locked cupboard in her bedroom. She shows it to DS Kauer: “Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me.”
DS Kauer writes: “It (the handwriting) was small but it was big enough for one thing to be clear. The writer was the same person who had written “Hell is empty” and left it by Ella’s body.”
The Stranger continues:
‘I heard a scream echoing through the corridors of the deserted house and I realised that it was mine. My friend, Gudgeon, lay dead at my feet. Wilberforce was a few yards away. I felt both their necks for a heartbeat but I knew there was nothing to be done. Someone, or something, had fallen on these men like a beast from hell and slaughtered them. Gudgeon’s chest was red with blood where he had been stabbed and stabbed again…. I thought at first that Wilberforce had been stabbed to death too, but, looking closer in the flickering light from my candle, I saw that he had been garrotted, a white cloth pulled tight around his neck, making his appearance ghastly in the extreme.’
We then see events through Georgia’s eyes. She not only is much more of a reader than her mother guesses, but she also takes a creative writing course at the sixth form college weekly after school with three other friends, while her mother thinks she is staying with a friend. She dates an “unsuitable” older boyfriend, Ty. “You don’t know much about the world,” he tells her (“from the height of his twenty-one years of experience”), ‘it’s a scary place.” Clare and Georgie’s father are not happy about her dating an older boy, but Clare feels he is fairly responsible because he holds down a job, and he brings Georgie home on time.
We learn that Miss Hughes is a white witch with excellent intuition. “She has taught us some meditation techniques and some simple chants…. how to create a circle of protections and how to rid ourselves of pestilent spirits. She’s also given each of us a black obsidian stone that guards against evil spirits.”
Ella’s parents want her funeral to be held at the school and, afterwards, we read more from The Stranger:
’ Listen to the wind howling. It seems to rock the train, does it not? We’re quite safe here, though. After all, there’s no connecting door between the carriages. No one can come in or out. More brandy?
What happened next?…the police never found their killer. I continued my studies. I think I became quite solitary and strange. Other students would look at me oddly as I crossed the quad or sat in the dining hall. ‘That’s him,’ I heard someone whisper once. ‘the other one.’ …I was now officially a member of the Hell Club but I didn’t attend their meeting or the infamous Blood Ball, which was held every year. …’
Henry Hamilton visits Clare in a pub near her home and hints that he would like to see Holland’s study. Clare correctly interprets this as an opportunity to kiss her and perhaps do more. However, once they unlock the study door, they see the body of Rick Lewis seated in Holland’s chair. Although a knife sticks out of his chest, he had been strangled – or garrotted – first. Again, a note is found: “Hell is empty.”
From this point on, events occur closer and closer together. Herbert goes missing and is found in a room in the cement factory, along with a sleeping bag and other items that are taken to be analyzed. After Clare’s ex-husband Simon is attacked, the police detectives suggest that Clare and her daughter visit Clare’s grandmother in Scotland to get far away. Clues are found in the same handwriting as before in Clare’s diary. Clare had written: “I will never, ever let Simon take my daughter away from me…Sometimes it feels as though my life started going wrong the day I met him.” The killer then wrote beneath her entry: ‘Leave it to me.’
It’s arranged that Clare, Georgie, and Herbert leave for Scotland on a train.
‘Well, today’s the anniversary of that day and I’m the only one left. What a strange thought that is, my dear young man I am sure that your lively brain has long since recognised the pattern that is unfolding here and the inauspiciousness of the date. Why is he telling me this story? you must wonder. Have I been chosen to witness the demise of the narrator?
But do not fear. After all, I am not about to go up in a hot air balloon or attempt to drive a coach and pair across the fens. I can’t plummet from the air or be dragged by footpads from my carriage.
I am in a train, it’s true, but I’m not about to leave this carriage.’
From then on, the conclusion comes quickly. At times, I can pick the villain before the end of the story. However, this was one time that I did not. Not all parts of the Gothic elements are resolved, nor should they be. Did Harbinder and her one-time boyfriend actually see a ghost at their old school? Is Miss Hughes an actual white witch? And who took the photograph of Marianna and Holland?
As a bonus, Griffiths places the complete story, The Stranger, by R.M. Holland, at the end of the book.
Elly Griffiths is also the author of the best-selling Ruth Galloway series and the Stephens and Mephisto Mystery series.
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.
[You may be wondering why we did not publish this delightful post just before Halloween. Answer: Editorial error. Sorry. — Editor]