The Stranger Diaries is a hugely enjoyable murder mystery with ghoulishly gothic undertones reminiscent of M R James or Edgar Allen Poe. Once you’ve started I guarantee you’ll be hooked.
Clare Cassidy lives in an idyllic seaside town teaching English in the local secondary school. She’s a divorced single mother who earns extra cash by running a creative writing class for adults in the school holidays. Clare is obsessed by the work of a creepy, little-known gothic author, R. M. Holland. Her love of his short story, The Stranger, sets the scene for this deliciously spooky novel.
Clare is writing Holland’s biography in her spare time. The mysterious Holland actually once lived in the old building which is now Clare’s school. A fact which she loves pointing out to her creative writing class, who are enjoyably freaked by the coincidence.
Suddenly a fellow English teacher and close friend is horribly murdered. Shockingly, the crime scene bears similarities to Holland’s work. And the deaths begin to pile up, each with some relevant eerie gothic detail and, worse, Clare begins to receive messages in her own diary, written in Holland’s tiny handwriting. The messages begin with: ‘Hello Clare. You don’t know me.’
The police are convinced that Clare must know the killer. She doesn’t know what to believe, and becomes increasingly concerned for the safety of her 15-year-old daughter, Georgie. As each corpse is discovered, so is a note at the scene quoting from The Stranger. It is in fact a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here.’
This is a deliciously creepy book containing all the features of good old-fashioned ghost stories: terrifyingly dark passageways in old haunted houses, dense sea-mists, a deserted old warehouse with mysterious flashing nocturnal lights, and even a self-proclaimed witch. What’s not to love? It’s terrific.
The horror story background of the reclusive writer of The Stranger is fleshed out in this excellent mystery with palpable enjoyment. Anyone who loves gothic ghost stories (Clare Cassidy, the novel’s heroine, adores Wilkie Collins, and The Woman in White is much quoted here) will shiver with delight reading about the strange legends swirling around R. M. Holland’s life.
His young wife, Alive Avery, was rumoured to have fallen to her death down the stairs of the old tower where the couple lived. Did Holland push her? Her ghost apparently appears as a screaming diffuse mist as she falls, a vision that always foreshadows someone’s death. And Holland writes of an elusive daughter, Mariana, whose fate remains unknown.
The police investigation into the school murders is led by DS Kaur, a sharp, witty and sceptical woman who herself attended the school where the case unfolds. She still has unpleasant memories of her time there, and the place certainly feels accursed. Meanwhile Clare’s daughter Georgie is living a secretive adolescent life attending, unknown to her mother, another creative writing course run by a woman known locally as a white witch.
Although this story is set in a weird and haunted school, it’s far from Hogwarts. But it is wonderfully enjoyable and presses all the right buttons to make you shiver and shudder as you read of ghosts, portents, draughty old towers and elderly strangers aboard a Victorian train who engage guileless young travellers in the kind of stories best enjoyed around a Christmas fire, logs crackling and chestnuts roasting.
We both loved it. So will you.