English teacher Clare Cassidy is deeply troubled after the murder of fellow teacher and friend Ella Elphick. Ella’s death eerily mimics the plot of Clare’s favorite Victorian ghost story, “The Stranger,” by author R.M. Holland, whose historic home remains a landmark on the school’s campus. When Clare seeks solace in her daily diary, she finds a chilling message written by another hand: “Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me.” When another teacher is found slain, this time inside the notorious Holland House, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur believes Clare is the link between the two deaths, prompting the teacher and her teenage daughter, Georgia, to flee Sussex on a sleeper train to Scotland.
Griffiths, the bestselling author of the Ruth Galloway and Magic Men mystery series, wisely chose to set her first standalone mystery on a campus similar to West Dean College in West Sussex, where she teaches creative writing.
“I love gothic fiction and Victorian stuff, but I wanted to set the book somewhere very everyday as well, somewhere that can bridge the everyday and the more spooky and surreal,” she explains by phone from her home in Brighton. “That’s why I chose an ordinary school.”
Every gothic tale needs a creepy building, and the mysterious Holland House—which is rumored to be the site of a murder at Holland’s own hand—has its roots in two vintage homes from Griffiths’ life, one an art patron’s home that now houses part of West Dean College, the other on the grounds where Griffiths attended secondary school in Sussex. “It happened to be in a very old building that was meant to be haunted,” she says. “And being a Catholic school, it was of course haunted by a spooky nun.”
Much like the presence of an ominous manor, the diary has a notable history in gothic fiction. Consider The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, in which Count Fosco reads Marian Halcombe’s diary and then writes in it. It’s a singular betrayal, a breach of an intimate space—and a clear inspiration for The Stranger Diaries. Griffiths, who has kept a diary since she was 11, admits that her ongoing fascination with the practice provided the tool that knit her mystery together with alternating first-person narration from Clare, Georgia and DS Kaur.
“Why do people keep diaries?” the author says. “I mean, I’d invite anyone to read mine, but then, why am I doing it? Sometimes I’ll put in a little quote and put in little brackets—King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5—and I think, why am I doing that? Who cares? You’re documenting your life for some particular reason.”
These traditional elements place The Stranger Diaries firmly among the finest of modern gothic—but much of the narrative charm that sets Griffiths’ novel apart comes from Georgia’s chapters, which feature a teenager’s often-overlooked wisdom. Griffiths credits this voice to her twin son and daughter, now 20.
“I do remember that feeling as a teenager [when adults] don’t really ask your opinion,” she says. “[Georgia’s] working things out ahead, and maybe some things she hasn’t got quite straight, but she certainly does have a view that they should be listening to. I really like Georgia, and I do feel we should listen to teenagers a bit more, because they do have this wonderful ability to observe things. Quite often my kids have said things and I’ll think, oh my gosh, they’re exactly right! I should have asked them before about that!”
As for Griffiths, who will release her first YA novel, A Girl Called Justice, this fall in the UK, weaving mysteries began at a very early age.
“I wrote a full-length mystery when I was 11,” she says. “It was called The Hair of the Dog, and it was a mystery set in a village in Sussex. It’s lost—my mom kept it for ages, and I’ve still got the beginning of it. Then when I was at secondary school, I used to write little episodes of ‘Starsky & Hutch’ that would be passed around in class, and kids would read them. And because I quite often used to kill Starsky or Hutch (’cause what can you do, really?), I remember that people would cry from them and be upset, and I suppose there was a moment when I realized, oh, you can do that with words.”
After earning a master’s degree in Victorian literature, Griffiths went to work in publishing at HarperCollins and ended up as an editorial director for children’s fiction. While on maternity leave, she wrote her first book, a memoir about her Italian immigrant father. After four more books written under her real name, Domenica de Rosa, she transitioned into crime fiction. “My then-agent said, ‘Oh, you need a crime name.’ So that’s how I became Elly Griffiths.”
Are we likely to revisit the academic world of The Stranger Diaries in a sequel? Maybe yes, at least in part.
“I really had meant it to be a standalone,” Griffiths says. “I think that was very liberating as well, because I was in this quite long-running series with Ruth Galloway, 10 books and the 11th coming up [The Stone Circle], and you’re writing a lot of books about specific characters, and you’ve got them into terrible complicated relationships by now. So I haven’t meant for there to be another [series]. Having said that, I did like the detective, Harbinder, and I could see that she might come into another book, maybe a different sort of book. . . . She felt like a cat you could write a bit more about.”