Every 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.