Mystery author Elly Griffiths, best known for her Ruth Galloway series, has written an excellent stand-alone novel of suspense, The Stranger Diaries. Clare Cassidy is an English teacher in a high school in rural Sussex, England. She is the divorced mother of a teenage daughter, Georgia, who is a student at the school. They live near an abandoned factory, and they have a dog named Herbert, who is just as much a character in the book as any of the people. One of the school buildings had been the home of the fictitious Victorian gothic author R.M. Holland, best known as the author of a short story called The Stranger, which Clare teaches to her class. Clare is writing a biography of Holland, who led a mysterious life. He was very reclusive, and rumor has it that he murdered his wife, whose ghost supposedly haunts the school and appears whenever someone is about to die. Holland's letters contain references to a daughter, but no record of her birth or death can be found.
When Clare's best friend and colleague, Ella, is found murdered, at first Clare cannot think of anyone who would want to murder her. Ella was a popular teacher, and well-liked by her colleagues. But then Clare remembers that Ella had a brief affair with Rick, the head of their department, at a teachers' training course the previous summer. Rick, a married man. was also romantically interested in Clare, even though she rejected him. Then, when Clare goes back to her diaries to read what she had written about the affair, she makes a startling discovery: an unknown person has written in her diary. This stranger seems to be trying to protect Clare from people who want to hurt her. But who is this stranger? And are this person and the murderer one and the same? Rick becomes the prime suspect in Ella's murder, once their affair becomes known, but then Clare finds his murdered body in R.M. Holland's study. Chillingly, the murders mimic those in Holland's story The Stranger, and a piece of paper with a line from the story is found with each of the bodies.
Clare is only one of three unreliable narrators in The Stranger Diaries. The second narrator is Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, who is investigating the case. Harbinder is a Sikh and a closeted lesbian who still lives with her parents. She is a graduate of the school and is familiar with R.M. Holland's story and the legends about his wife's ghost. Harbinder is a great character, witty and sarcastic, with a dry sense of humor and a logical approach to solving mysteries. I hope that she will reappear in a future book. Clare seems rather sympathetic in her own sections of the book, as does Harbinder in hers, but the two of them take a dislike to each other, and when you read about one from the other's point of view, you can see their flaws.
The third narrator is Clare's daughter, Georgia, who is very mature for her age and has a much-older boyfriend. Her mother likes him as a person, but doesn't like the idea of her daughter dating someone so much older. Also, unknown to her mother, Georgia is taking a creative writing class with Bryony Hughes, a white witch, who teaches her students about exorcising spirits. All three narrators--Clare, Harbinder, and Georgia--are keeping secrets from each other. Sometimes you will read the same scene, written first from one point of view and then from another, and it will seem like a totally different scene. This unusual narrative technique is one of the outstanding features of the novel. Griffiths keeps you guessing as to how unreliable the narrators are. She builds suspense by letting you see the same events from multiple points of view.
Griffiths also includes segments from R.M. Holland's story, The Stranger, interspersed between sections of the novel, and these form a fourth narrative. You read the story a little at a time, and then, at the end of the book, you get to read the whole story. Also, she includes selections from Clare's diary, and from Georgia's online diary. This makes for a very complex narrative, which Griffiths pulls off brilliantly. Each narrator has a distinctive voice, and the reader is never confused about whose point of view they're reading at any given moment.
The setting of the old school, the supposedly haunted house, and the abandoned factory is an appropriately creepy one for this contemporary gothic novel, and Griffiths conveys the atmosphere brilliantly. She keeps up your suspense until the end. I never guessed who the murderer was. I thought I had figured it out, but I was wrong, and it came as a total surprise. The Stranger Diaries is an outstanding mystery novel, and it thoroughly deserves its recent nomination for the Edgar Award, the most prestigious award in mystery fiction.
The Stranger Diaries is available from the Recreational Reading Collection at the Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library.