As you may have noticed, I love to be surprised by the books I’m reading. Today I’m going to talk a bit about the latest murder mystery I’ve read: The Stranger’s Diaries. It’s set in England, in a high school in the countryside, and as I talk about it you’ll understand why I defined it with the word “masterclass”. First of all, let’s make a spoiler-free recap.
The book opens through the eyes of Clare Cassidy, an English Literature teacher working at Talgarth High. She’s divorced and she lives close to the school with her fifteen years old daughter, Georgie. Georgie looks like the typical rebel teenager: she’s not in very good terms with a mother that loves her, she has a close circle of friends, she has a boyfriend much older than her.
Clare, on the other hand, is very passionate about her job and in particular about R.M. Holland, a writer who lived in the building that is currently hosting the school. In particular, Clare is fond of one of his short stories, The Stranger, and she’s researching Holland’s life and stories for the book she’s writing. That seems quite a quiet life in the countryside, until her colleague Ella, which is also one of her best friends, get murdered. To make it all worse, the way Ella was murdered is inspired by The Stranger, as if the killer was sending a message to Clare.
Of course the suspects fall on Clare at first and then on the professors of the school, in particular Rick, because of course he had a thing for Ella even though he was married and sort of her boss. But when Rick ends up dead, of course he’s ruled out of the suspects list. But then, who did it?
That’s a job for detective Harbinder Kaur to find out, but of course Clare can’t help getting mixed in in the investigation, also because the killer seems to be talking right to her. They also go as far as leaving messages for Clare in her diary (because yes, Clare keeps a diary). When the mysterious killer begins to threaten Clare’s family and her ex-husband, Harbinder suggests that Clare leaves her home for a while and retreats to Scotland. Of course, Clare will find out who the killer is right when she’s up there, snowed in in a place with poor transportation and connection.
The thing that made this book stand out is how the story was told through the eyes of the three protagonists: Clare, Harbinder, Georgie. Elly Griffiths did a hell of a job in telling a few events from the eyes of each of the protagonists, and how she depicted the perception they had of each other. And they all are unreliable characters in their own way: it’s clear that they’re filtering the events through their own eyes, and this was masterfully executed. I was stunned by how the events told more than once really sounded as if they were told by three different people rather than the same writer.
Another thing that is a plus is that as much as I could foresee WHEN Clare was going to find out about the killer (and the expectation increased my curiosity), I had no clue whatsoever about WHO the killer could be until the very end. Was it Clare, jealous of how careless Ella had been in sleeping with Rick? Was it Georgie, involved in a witch-coven hidden behind a teenage book club? Was it Miss Hughes, the coordinator of Georgie’s book club? Was it the Harvard professor that helps Clare with her research about R.M. Holland?
One of the non-written rules says that the murderer should appear early in the story and remain there until the end, hiding in plain sight. And as I said, this book looked like a kind of masterclass in murder mystery, the killer was introduced early on and found out only at the end.
Still, despite all of its undeniable qualities, I’m not going to regard this book as one of the best murder mysteries I’ve ever read. The final twist was unexpected but I found it too much of a stretch. In other words I had a hard time believing the killer’s motivation. Also, I wish it was more related to R.M. Holland’s “The Stranger” instead of only using it as a device to link Clare and the killer.
Again, this is just my opinion, and the fact that I’m making these comments doesn’t mean the book was bad or that I had a bad time reading it. So many other reviewers loved it, and I can see why they did. I just wasn’t carried away by the solution of the puzzle, and this somehow spoiled my overall experience.
But still, I’m so curious to read other books from Elly Griffiths, in particular from her “Harbinder Kaur’s series”.