Review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Summary: Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. A high school English teacher specializing in the Gothic writer R. M. Holland, she teaches a course on it every year. But when one of Clare’s colleagues and closest friends is found dead, with a line from R. M. Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger,” left by her body, Clare is horrified to see her life collide with the storylines of her favourite literature.

To make matters worse, the police suspect the killer is someone Clare knows. Unsure whom to trust, she turns to her closest confidant, her diary, the only outlet she has for her darkest suspicions and fears about the case. Then one day she notices something odd. Writing that isn’t hers, left on the page of an old diary: “Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me.” Clare becomes more certain than ever: “The Stranger” has come to terrifying life. But can the ending be rewritten in time?

Genre: mystery
Rating: ★★★

The Stranger Diaries was recommended on a list of gothic horror and mystery novels, and I really loved the creepy atmosphere that Griffiths built here. The story takes place in a school that is rumored to be haunted; there’s a strange horror story written by a dead guy who used to live at the school; some of the students learn to do white magic from their professor; oh, and the English department is being killed off one by one. For as much as I love a good haunted house story, it was refreshing to take place in a different setting, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into this story.

This was an extremely quick and engrossing read that I read in just a few hours. I found the plot to be slightly predictable, and felt that there were one too many red herrings to throw the reader off that didn’t quite bait me like they should have. Every new character that was introduced was just slightly sketchy enough, but never enough for the person I had in mind as the killer, which made me correctly guess very early on. That being said, I was still anticipating seeing how the story unraveled.

I also loved the history of the famous local celebrity whose horror stories inspired so many characters and the case in this story. I wish this had been touched on more! The book begins with Clare talking about this author’s writing, and the story is included in snippets in between chapters. There was some minor mystery around this, and it was interesting but unfortunately fell off the radar quite a bit once the real story picked up.

My biggest grievance here was that I disliked every single character. The story begins from Clare’s perspective, and while she seemed a bit boring and snobbish for an English teacher, (I thought it was a little brazen for the author to have Clare nonchalantly belittle The Girl on the Train when the target audience for that book is probably the exact same for this one) I didn’t necessarily mind her. However, I found her diary entries to come off as incredibly childish, and they read like they were coming from two different people, when they should have been the exact same tone since it was the same person’s thoughts and perspective.

The book also covered the story from the perspective of Clare’s daughter, Georgia. I genuinely could not tell you what her chapters added to the story. As a whole, there was an overabundance of overlap between the story with multiple narrators. Clare’s chapters would cover certain situations, which would be followed by Georgia’s chapters, where she would mention almost the exact same information, only through her eyes. The reader doesn’t really learn anything from this, other than a few snippets thrown in that don’t amount to much. It was exhausting to constantly reread information.

When the POV switched to Harbinder, the detective on the case, I was immediately put off. I’m already uncomfortable with white authors writing about POC. This is an entire debate or essay for another time, and obviously I’m happy to see white authors actually include non-white characters in their stories, but I don’t necessarily agree that they should be writing stories through the eyes of non-white characters. Harbinder is Indian, lives at home with her parents who run a small store, and only really mentions her culture by name-dropping different types of Indian food that her mom makes. Oh, and she’s gay. It’s like the author wanted to tick off all the boxes to get the inclusivity award and only barely scratched the surface.

On top of Harbinder being a walking stereotype, she was also one of the most awful women I’ve read about in a long time. She constantly belittled other women around her and is definitely the type to say she doesn’t have female friends because she thinks women are too dramatic. Even when she was trying to solve the case and help Clare, she was constantly making degrading comments about her. I don’t know if the author did this on purpose to give her that kind of “bad cop” attitude, but on top of the already questionable pieces of her personality, this didn’t sit well with me at all. I found myself dreading Harbinder’s chapters.

This was overall not a bad read. It was slightly predictable but still gripping, which is why I’d rate it closer to 3.5 stars. However, Harbinder’s character was extremely off-putting to me, and I have little to no interest in reading the rest of the series, which follows her while she solves other cases.

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