Opening sentence: “‘If you’ll permit me’, said the Stranger, ‘I’d like to tell you a story.'”
The Stranger Diaries is brilliant for this reason: it has all the atmosphere and chills of a Gothic novel BUT it’s in a modern day setting AND there’s a good-old detective on the trail of a killer theme mixed in there too. We are told the story through alternating chapters from Clare Cassidy, her teenage daughter Georgia and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur. Clare teaches English at a secondary school on the Sussex coast and is left terrified when her friend and fellow teacher, Ella, is murdered. Not only that, the murder mimics a very niche story of a (fictional) Victorian author Clare is researching and writing a biography of, R.M. Holland. There’s even a note left by the body quoting from Holland’s most famous short story, The Stranger, stating: ‘Hell is empty.’ (Random side note: This is the second book I’ve read recently that reference this phrase, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The other was The Glittering Hour – very random, right?)
DS Kaur is the woman in charge of solving the crime and discovering the link to Clare – can she work out who committed the murder and what their motivation was before someone else is killed?
Harbinder is a firecracker who you are fully behind and Clare, while feeling a little more distant, has a fair few secrets that make her very intriguing. I also love the ambiguity that surrounds Georgia’s character. This really adds tension as you’re never sure which way her story will turn.
The structure was a big plus for me: Elly drops traditional Gothic horror conventions into the narrative in passing, then – a few chapters later – executes them. In a classic horror way, you knew it was coming but that doesn’t mean the effect is any less visceral. This is supported further throughout the book when we are treated to R.M. Holland’s short story. Written in a Victorian tone of voice, it really ramps up the creepy factor and adds an authentic Gothic depth to the read.
Interestingly, in a Q&A at the back of this edition, Elly describes finding the Gothic genre comforting and I know what she means. It brings to mind Agatha Christie for me, whose books I always find warm and delightful to read, despite their often gory themes! I liked the other nod to Agatha too: Harbinder makes a list of where she’s up to in the investigation so far – a classic Poirot move if ever I saw one.
The Stranger Diaries is one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had recently due to its blend of the Gothic and crime genres, strong female characters and a clever, captivating story that had me hooked. It’s perfect for this time of year too – cosy up on a dark afternoon and let yourself get lost in this modern Gothic gem.