“The Stranger Diaries” by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger DiariesEvery year, I try to read the Edgar nominees for Best Novel. Of the 2020 field, the only one I’d already read was Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl, which I really enjoyed. I’m a big fan of Peter Heller’s spellbinding 2017 novel Celine, and I have a copy of his nominated book The River on my TBR pile. Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland is one I know nothing about, and I’ve heard good things about Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee.

That leaves Elly Griffiths’ The Stranger Diaries, which I checked out of the library back in January immediately after the nominations were announced; it had been described as a “brilliant twist on Gothic suspense,” which sounded right up my alley. I only made it a few pages in, however, before I came upon a passage which made me put the book down. A teacher is lecturing about the utility of animal characters in suspense fiction, and she tells her students:

“Animals are expendable. Authors often kill them to create tension. It’s not a significant as killing a human but it can be surprisingly upsetting.”

Since a canine character had already been introduced, I wondered if this was a signal to the reader that the dog would be bumped off in the course of the story. I’m not one of those “never kill a fictional animal” absolutists, but in this case, I had literally just adopted a new dog a couple of days beforehand, and the idea of reading about an animal in jeopardy held even less appeal than usual.

When the book won the best-novel award, I figured I should give it another try, though I sincerely hoped the dog would make it through the book alive. Spoiler alert: he does, though not without a few adventures along the way. Whew!

The Stranger Diaries has a trio of narrators: Clare, an English teacher at Talgarth High School; her teenage daughter, Georgia, who attends Talgarth; and Harbinder Kaur, the detective investigating the murder of Ella Elphick, Clare’s close friend and colleague. Ella is found dead in her kitchen, stabbed to death. A note left by her body reads “Hell is empty,” a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ella had been rumored to be having an affair with another teacher. Could someone at the school have killed her?

The words “Hell is empty” also appear in “The Stranger,” a famous ghost story by 19th-century writer R.M. Holland, whose home is now part of the Talgarth campus. When another teacher is murdered, it becomes apparent that the methods were borrowed from Holland’s tale. Clare, who is working on a biography of Holland, writes regularly in a diary, and when cryptic notes written by another hand start showing up in those private pages, she worries that she might be the next victim.

This is a very clever book, and I must admit that the killer’s identity was a total surprise to me (though it made perfect sense in retrospect). For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I found it a little bit difficult to get into, especially compared to last week’s book, Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In, which I just breezed through. In the end, I admired The Stranger Diaries more than I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not surprised that a jury of Griffiths’ peers elected to give her the top prize; the novel is supremely well-plotted and both plays with and faithfully follows genre tropes.

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies' ChoirIn her afterword to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Jennifer Ryan writes that she was inspired by her grandmother, who used to tell her “thrilling and often racy” stories about her experiences on the home front during World War II. “Women of all ages faced tragedy and hardship, but they also had opportunities for work and new personal freedoms with fathers, husbands, and sons away at the front… Plus, there was the heady notion that each day might be your last, so you need to make the most of it.”

Ryan captures the spirit of the times beautifully in her debut novel, which takes place during the eventful spring and summer of 1940 in a small town in southeastern England, not far from Dover. The story is told through letters and journal entries written by several of the women and girls in town, including middle-aged widow Mrs. Tilling, whose only child, David, is going off to war; 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop and her older sister Venetia, daughters of the powerful and wealthy Brigadier; and crafty midwife Miss Paltry, who is preoccupied with a get-rich-quick scheme. They are all members of the local Women’s Choir, formed after the men who used to lift their voices in song left Chilbury to fight for their country.

Some male newcomers do arrive in town, such as the mysterious artist Mr. Slater, with whom Venetia quickly becomes infatuated, and a colonel doing war work in the area, who is billeted to stay with Mrs. Tilling, much to her dismay.

By the end of the book, I really felt that I had a sense of what it must have felt like to live during that challenging time period, and how the simplest things, like a group of women gathering to sing together, can provide solace and fellowship during crisis: “Music takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies, helps us look into a different world, a bigger picture. All those cadences and beautiful chord changes, every one of them makes you feel a different splendor of life.”

“Good Girl, Bad Girl” by Michael Robotham

Good Girl, Bad GirlWhen you pick up a novel titled Good Girl, Bad Girl, you are probably going to assume that it’ll be about two young women: one a saint, the other a sinner. At first, it seems like murder victim Jodie Sheehan must have been the good girl; she was a pretty figure skating champion who lived with her family in a nice neighborhood. Evie Cormac, a troubled teenager confined (with the aid of an ankle monitor) to a high-security children’s home, is “a danger to herself and others,” according to a social worker.

A few years ago, Evie became a media sensation when she was discovered holed up in a hidden room of a house owned by a low-level gangster. The man had been tortured to death, and when Evie was found, she was a total mystery: despite DNA tests and public appeals, the authorities never figured out where she came from or who she was. At that point, she didn’t even have a name, so she was given a new one, and cycled in and out of foster homes before being placed in Langford Hall.

Her social worker recruits Cyrus Haven, a psychologist who works with the local police in Nottingham, England, to see if he can help Evie. Cyrus also comes from a violent background; his brother murdered their parents and sisters, and Cyrus was only spared because he was away at football practice.

As Cyrus investigates Jodie’s death and gets to know Evie, it becomes apparent that pigeonholing either girl as “good” or “bad” is overly simplistic; both of them have secrets and complicated histories. I assumed Good Girl, Bad Girl was a standalone, like Robotham’s last book, The Secrets She Keeps, so I expected that by the final page, everything about Evie’s past would have been revealed. But while Jodie’s killer is unmasked in the end, Evie remains, in many ways, an enigma.

A second novel featuring Cyrus and Evie, When She Was Good, will be published this summer. Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series (also about a psychologist!) ran to eight volumes, so it’s likely that Evie’s backstory will be parceled out in dribs and drabs in future books. My guess is that there may also be more to Cyrus’s family tragedy than meets the eye. In any case, I found Good Girl, Bad Girl to be fast-paced and intriguing, so I’m definitely on board for the sequel.

“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the KeyIf last year’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway took inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, then the title of Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Turn of the Key, seems to pay homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I’ve never read James’ novella, but according to an interview, Ware herself hadn’t read it either when she began writing: “I vaguely knew what the plot was, that it was about a governess and ghosts, but that was about it… It was only about halfway through that the penny dropped. At that point I decided that I had better read The Turn of the Screw so I knew what I was dealing with and so that I could ensure any overlaps were deliberate rather than accidental.”

Screw was published in 1898, while Key is undeniably a product of the 21st century, with most of the action taking place in a “smart house” in Scotland owned by two architects. The Elincourts have four children and are seeking a nanny who is willing to relocate to their remote Highlands home, a Victorian lodge that’s been modernized with a wide array of cutting-edge features. Lights, heat, phones, curtains, the coffeemaker and the shower—all those and more are controlled by the “Happy” system.

Rowan Caine figures dealing with the complicated app is a small price to pay for what seems like the perfect job, thanks to its fat salary and the luxurious environs of Heatherbrae House. But then she starts hearing frightening sounds, including footsteps from the supposedly sealed-up attic above her room, and mysterious shrieks that definitely aren’t coming from her young charges. One of the daughters, eight-year-old Maddie, seems convinced that they are sharing the house with ghosts. The fact that several previous nannies had left the Elincourts’ employ abruptly seem to indicate that something is very wrong.

Rowan may not believe in ghosts, but when both parents have to go out of town, leaving her alone with the children, the spooky goings-on accelerate, driving her nearly to the point of madness. “Suddenly… I understood what dark terrors had driven those four previous nannies out of their post and away. To lie here, night after night, listening, waiting, staring into the darkness at that locked door, that open keyhole gaping into blackness… I would not sleep again tonight. I knew that now.”

The Turn of the Key is an ideal Halloween read, though I must admit that I found the ending rather disappointing, as Ware throws in perhaps one twist too many. If you’re not already a fan of her work, this is perhaps not the best book to start with (I’d recommend either Mrs. Westaway or The Woman in Cabin 10), but all of her talent for creating a creepy, evocative mood is on full display here, and Key does provide plenty of gothic, spooky fun.

“Killing With Confetti” by Peter Lovesey and “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper

Killing With Confetti“There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and Peter Lovesey’s mysteries set in Bath have no doubt made many readers feel like they’ve spent time in the city. I longed to see it in person, which I finally managed to do last year. So it was especially delightful to discover that two of the places I visited during my stay, the Abbey and the Roman Baths, both play important roles in the latest Peter Diamond investigation, Killing With Confetti.

Diamond, Bath’s head of CID, is not happy with his latest assignment: providing security for the wedding between a crime boss’s daughter and a policeman’s son. And not just any policeman—the Deputy Chief Constable, second-in-command for the entire region. Joe Irving is fresh out of jail, and his criminal rivals would love to bump him off, while DCC George Brace will do anything to ensure that his daughter’s perfect day goes off without a hitch. Diamond’s boss, Georgina Dallymore, is ready to make Diamond the fall guy if anything does go wrong. It all adds up to a thankless, high-stakes assignment.

The suspense builds as the happy couple heads toward their wedding at the Abbey followed by a lavish reception at the Baths, everything paid for with Irving’s ill-gotten gains. Instead of having to catch a crook, Diamond is busy keeping one safe from harm. But unbeknownst to him, there’s a determined assassin waiting in the shadows…

Killing With Confetti provides the clever twists and wry humor that Diamond’s fans have come to expect over the course of this 18-book series. Lovesey is 82 now, and certainly has nothing more to prove—the list of awards and honors on his website is a mile long. How fortunate that he has chosen to continue to delight readers with new novels.

The Lost ManMeanwhile, on the other side of the world, Jane Harper has set her latest novel in a place much less hospitable than genteel Bath: the middle of the Australian Outback, a place so isolated and unforgiving that one stroke of misfortune can be fatal. The closest city, Brisbane, is 900 miles away; brothers Cameron and Nathan Bright are both cattle ranchers and are each other’s nearest neighbors, though their homes are a three-hour drive apart.

As The Lost Man opens, Cameron’s body has just been discovered, near a lonely, 100-year-old tombstone. Nathan and his youngest brother, Bub, can’t imagine that cautious Cam died by accident; the fact that his vehicle was found just a few miles away, in fine working order with a full tank of fuel and mini-fridge stocked with water, seems to indicate foul play. But Cam seems to have been bothered by something lately, though he didn’t confide in anyone. Could he have committed suicide? Though if so, why would he choose such a brutal way to kill himself instead of, say, using a gun?

The Lost Man vividly depicts Outback life, which is harsh but has its attractions as well. “There was something about the brutal heat, when the sun was high in the sky and [Nathan] was watching the slow meandering movements of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colors in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness.” This book provides a fascinating glimpse into a place that at times seems almost as remote as an alien planet, but her characters are all heartbreakingly human.

“The Sentence is Death” by Anthony Horowitz

The Sentence is Death by Anthony HorowitzConsidering that my review of Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder gets approximately 10 times more hits than any other post on this site, thanks to people who are using Google to try to figure out which of its characters are real and which are fictional, I would be remiss if I didn’t review the follow-up, right? Once again, Horowitz has cast himself as the sidekick to an enigmatic private investigator named Hawthorne, and the book combines fact (yes, Horowitz actually did create the TV drama “Foyle’s War” and the young-adult Alex Rider novels) and fiction (no, literary superstar Akira Anno is made up—Horowitz writes that he’s “had to change her name,” but she doesn’t seem to be based on a single person; she’s likely a composite of various lit-world people Horowitz has met throughout his career).

Akira Anno stands accused of murdering divorce lawyer Richard Pryce, who was fatally struck by a wine bottle shortly after Akira publicly threatened him in a crowded restaurant. Richard’s home was in the process of being redecorated, and someone—likely the killer—grabbed some paint and scrawled a three-digit number on the wall. Since Horowitz has a three-book contract to write about Hawthorne and his cases, he starts following him around as he investigates the murder.

Perhaps the funniest scene in this very amusing book is one in which Horowitz attends one of Akira Anno’s readings at his favorite bookshop, Daunt (real!). Someone slips a paperback into his shoulder bag and he is accused of shoplifting and banned from the store by manager Rebecca Le Fevre, who is also a real person. Of all the indignities that Horowitz suffers during his career as Hawthorne’s Boswell, this is surely the worst.

Later, Hawthorne and Horowitz meet with a fictional publisher who may have information relevant to their investigation. “I think it would be a fantastic idea if they got you to write a [James] Bond next. I know the Ian Fleming estate. I could have a word with them if you like…” (Horowitz has published two Bond novels, Trigger Mortis and Forever and a Day.)

Horowitz’s mysteries are always reliably clever and well-plotted, but what really makes these books such a blast are those in-jokes. The reader gets the sense that these novels are just a lot of fun to write—The Sentence is Death merrily sends up pretentious literary offerings as well as the lowbrow “Doomworld” series (“a fantasy version of England in the time of King Arthur, weaving magic and mystery with really quite extreme levels of violence and pornography”)—but more importantly, they’re incredibly fun to read as well.

“The Cactus” by Sarah Haywood and “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert

The CactusI’ll say one thing about Sarah Haywood, she is nothing if not self-aware. In The Cactus, her main character, Susan, has lent a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to her neighbor Kate. “I quite liked it,” Kate says to Susan as she returns the novel, “but I didn’t get Miss Brodie. She didn’t seem very likable. I can’t enjoy a book if I don’t warm to the main character.”

“I disagree,” Susan responds. “I’d rather read about someone interesting than someone who’s just nice.”

That passage is definitely delivered with a wink on the part of the author, because Susan could certainly be considered an unsympathetic heroine. As the title suggests, she cultivates cacti, which are prickly, just like her—again, very on the nose. But I really enjoyed The Cactus, which does a superb job of gradually rolling out Susan’s backstory and giving some insight as to why she became the way she is: an extremely self-contained control freak, the very definition of that British expression, “she keeps herself to herself.”

Susan, a Londoner in her mid-40s, has led a very well-ordered life, avoiding other people as much as possible. She’s the kind of person who is super-competent at her job but never wants to socialize with her co-workers, or even spare a couple minutes for a chat. Naturally, she avoids romantic entanglements, too, though for 12 years, she’s enjoyed a no-strings-attached relationship with a writer named Richard, whom she meets every Wednesday for an evening at the theater or the opera followed by a sexual encounter. It’s a satisfying arrangement, until one fateful day when Susan discovers that she’s pregnant. (“I’d always assumed that barriers methods were foolproof, but I’ve learned to my cost that they aren’t.”)

Susan decides to have the baby, which, of course, changes her life in a myriad of ways. As the book progresses, she is forced to renegotiate her relationships with a multitude of people, including her brother, Edward, with whom she has had an increasingly fraught relationship ever since their mother died and left him the family home. Susan vows to challenge her mother’s will, causing an even greater rift between the siblings. Despite that complication, her world starts to expand little by little, preparing her for the chaos that is destined to descend on the day she finally meets the most unpredictable person of all: her own child.

City of GirlsWas there ever a more glamorous era than New York City in the pre-war 1940s? Elizabeth Gilbert takes readers back to that heady time in City of Girls, a book that starts out as light and fizzy as a champagne cocktail but gradually becomes darker and more poignant. Vivian Morris, freshly dismissed from Vassar (“on account of never having attended classes and thereby failing every single one of my freshman exams”), is sent by her disappointed parents to spend the summer with her Aunt Peg. Peg owns a run-down theater called the Lily Playhouse, which serves its working-class audience by presenting escapist fare featuring corny jokes and glamorous showgirls. Vivian, thanks to her talent for sewing, soon becomes a crucial part of the Lily Playhouse ecosystem, but everything changes—and not always for the better—when the theater actually manages to score a massive hit show, “City of Girls.”

The novel’s first-person narrative is by a much-older Vivian, looking back at her life and addressing a younger woman named Angela. What is their relationship? That isn’t revealed until much later in the book, but along the way, it’s such a delight to just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the pleasure of spending a few hours in a long-ago world of Manhattan showbiz.

“The Knowledge” by Martha Grimes

The KnowledgeEvery time I have visited London, I’ve been struck by how vast it is. When I was there last May, I took a walking tour and was amazed at how the guide took us down odd side streets that I would never even have noticed had I been wandering around on my own.

If you want to drive one of the classic London black cabs, you have to acquire The Knowledge—learning all of the city’s 25,000 streets by memory, and having to pass rigorous oral exams, which involve reciting from memory the fastest route from any given point in town to another.

The idea of a mystery novel centered around The Knowledge struck me as a great idea, and it had been a few years since I’d last read anything by Martha Grimes. But The Knowledge, in which a cab driver witnesses a murder in the book’s opening pages, actually has fairly little to do with taxis or drivers. Much of the action takes place in Kenya, and involves a 10-year-old girl, an orphan who survives by her wits. It’s quite an odd book.

Grimes’ long-running series character Detective Superintendent Richard Jury is on the case of who killed a glamorous couple in front of one of London’s most exclusive clubs, a casino/art gallery. Unbeknownst to Jury, little Patty Haigh has managed to follow the suspect from London to Nairobi. (Yes, this part of the story requires some suspension of disbelief.) Armed with a mobile phone, different-colored wigs and a selection of fake IDs, she’s akin to a 21st-century version of one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Meanwhile, back in London, Jury is trying to figure out a possible connection between the murders and a rare-gem smuggling scheme.

There are some wryly funny moments in this book, which has a plot that sometimes seems as convoluted as a route from Islington to Isleworth, many of them involving a pub called The Knowledge “that only London’s black cab drivers could patronize… [it] would be otherwise unlocatable: untraceable, unfindable, unmappable.” The Knowledge itself didn’t prove to be a totally satisfying novel, but I’d love to read more about that fictional pub and the cabbies that hang out there.

“The Word is Murder” by Anthony Horowitz

The Word is Murder by Anthony HorowitzBy far the most popular review I’ve published on this site in 2018 was that of White Houses by Amy Bloom, a fictionalized retelling of the love story between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. People who have read the book are obviously Googling Parker Fiske (a gay cousin Bloom invented) to find out whether or not he’s real. I can understand the impulse—I found myself reaching for my phone more than once as I was reading Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder, a work of metafiction which features Horowitz himself playing Watson to an eccentric former police detective-turned-consultant named Hawthorne.

Did Horowitz actually take a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson about writing the script for a Tintin movie? (He did.) I already knew that he’d written a Sherlock Holmes novel called The House of Silk, because I had read it. What about his formidable literary agent, Hilda Starke? (She appears to be fictional.) Did he really turn down the chance to work on the “Mamma Mia” musical? (Unknown.)

If I didn’t know better, I might have checked IMDb for Damian Cowper’s filmography, since Horowitz “casts” the character in several real-life TV shows and movies, including “Mad Men,” “Homeland” the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot and “two of the Harry Potter films.” But Cowper’s name will not be found there, since he’s a product of the author’s imagination. Damien is the son of the murder victim, Diana Cowper, who was found strangled with a curtain cord just hours after she’d visited a funeral parlor to plan and prepay for the her own service and burial.

Called in to investigate this puzzling case is Hawthorne, who summons Horowitz to a meeting to pitch a book project. “I want you to write a book about me,” he tells the author. When Horowitz asks why anyone would want to read about him, he responds, “I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.” And the Cowper case is attractive: “She was rich. She’s got a famous son. And here’s another thing. As far as we can see, she didn’t have an enemy in the world. That’s why I got called in. None of it makes any sense.”

Horowitz isn’t sure if he wants to get involved with the prickly Hawthorne, who is forthcoming about the case but oddly secretive about his own life. Nevertheless, he eventually decides to go ahead with the project, and learns that Diana Cowper wasn’t quite as squeaky-clean as Hawthorne initially thought she was.

I am proud to say that I figured out the identity of the murderer, thanks to one clue that leapt out at me, but it doesn’t really matter, because The Word is Murder is another delightfully twisty treat from Horowitz, whose Magpie Murders was one of  my favorite books of 2017. And what a joy to learn that he’s planning at least nine more books in the series. It sounds like the fictionalized and the real-life Anthony Horowitzes will both be keeping very busy.

“The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

The Death of Mrs. WestawayRuth Ware’s fourth novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, seems to draw a lot of its inspiration from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. There’s a Cornish mansion, a sinister housekeeper, secrets galore, and a young heroine who has no idea what lies ahead of her when she arrives at the stately home.

Hal (née Harriet) Westaway is dead broke—in fact, she’s in debt to a loan shark—when she receives a letter from an attorney informing her that her grandmother has died and Hal is a beneficiary of her will. This comes as something of a shock, since the parents of her late single mother, Margarida Westaway, are both dead. Hal figures it has to be a mistake, but perhaps all she needs to do is show up for the funeral and reading of the will, and if she’s lucky, she’ll inherit enough money to make her problems go away. So she takes the train down to Penzance and finds herself at Trepassen House, a crumbling, ivy-covered estate. The housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, is decidedly unfriendly, putting Hal up in a freezing attic room with a barred window and locks on the outside of the door.

Eventually, Hal meets the late Mrs. Westaway’s offspring and their respective families, who don’t exactly give her a warm welcome either. Somehow, she needs to figure out a way to trick them all into believing that she is the daughter of their long-lost sister Maud, who disappeared without a trace many years ago, without seeming like so much of a threat that somebody will be tempted to kill her in order to keep all those secrets intact.

Hal is a clever and resourceful heroine and I found the book to be great fun, if a bit portentous at times. (“There was a sudden spatter of fresh rain against the glass, and she thought she heard—though perhaps it was her fancy—the far-off sound of waves against a shore. An image came into Hal’s mind—of rising waters, closing above all of their heads, while Mrs. Westaway laughed from beyond the grave…”) But for those of us who enjoy this gloriously Gothic type of novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway offers solid summertime entertainment.