The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries (Harbinder Kaur, #1)The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This combination murder mystery and horror story isn’t really very scary or even very gory, but it is quite clever. The main character Clare is a tall, beautiful, blonde teacher at a British high school. She keeps a diary. Her best friend Ella is a similar beautiful blonde English teacher at the school. Both have been hit on by their boss, a married man. Clare is a divorcee with a teenage daughter, Georgie, who is secretly into witchy type stuff with a bunch of her friends and who also keeps a diary. Soon Ella is killed, murdered with a knife. A detective sergeant named Harbinder Kaur leads the investigation. Then there’s another death. Throughout this we are fed excerpts from a short story called The Stranger (hence the title) by an author named Holland, who, coincidentally used to live in the house that is now one of the buildings of the high school. Clare teaches that short story in her class. Quotes from it begin to appear in odd places.

The setting is suitably spooky and the various characters are all just suspicious enough that any could be the killer. The violence isn’t yet over and all of it centers around Clare. There’s a student who had a crush on Ella, a weird woman leading a class with him and Georgie, Clare’s ex-husband, Georgie’s boyfriend, a Mr. Sweetman who is head of the school, a professor who has a thing for Clare. The author does a good job of making them all seem plausible as suspects, but they all seem to have alibis or lack of motive, or both.

As an American I had some fun and some frustration with all the Britishness of the story. The educational system seems so different with a 6th form college (?), GCSE’s (?). It seems quaint that the nation is so London-centric and people still travel by train. In the U.S. anywhere but the east coast, Washington, D.C. and New York are irrelevancies to most people, almost as esoteric as London and Paris. And we drive our cars everywhere. I thought I knew most British terms for things due to a lot of reading British mysteries and working the Guardian Cryptic Crossword every night, but I had to look up quite a few, including more than a few geographic locations. I enjoy that sort of thing, but where it got to be a pain is when cultural references were made such as product names or when television shows or radio stations were referenced. These were even important for establishing alibis, but I had no idea when they came on. Another British ambience thing I’m used to is the prevalence of Indian culture and frequent mention of getting curries over there. I’d never had curry until I studied in Japan and I grew to hate it. Here there are a growing number of Indians in the high-tech field and Indian restaurants are popping up, although it certainly isn’t treated as a fast food option the way it is there.

I liked Harbinder Kaur, a rather angry and dark bulldog of a character, largely for the contrast with the snooty school atmosphere. She had a partner who was irrelevant to everything. I have a quibble, though, in that the story switches from Clare’s first-person voice to Harbinder’s at several points (and to Georgie’s, too) for no purpose. I generally enjoy hearing the story told from two or three different perspectives, e.g. The Embezzler, but only when it it sheds a different light on things. Here, Harbinder mostly either repeats what Clare has already related, or just continues the story narrative in a way that could have been told equally by Clare or an anonymous narrator. The same is true for Georgie, although to a lesser extent. It almost felt like padding to get to 300 pages. I really enjoyed the original idea of teasing us with the short story throughout and then finishing it in the epilogue. It’s a great, creepy story. Much of it, like the main story, takes place on Halloween. Overall, the book kept me in perpetual suspense and eager to read the next chapter. The ending was somewhat predictable but hidden to very near the end and, importantly for a mystery, “fair.”

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