Clare Cassidy lives for a spooky story, but she never expected her life to become one. The Stranger Diaries opens as Clare—a high school English teacher—is teaching an adult education course during the half-term break. The subject matter? R.M. Holland’s The Stranger—a Gothic tale she dissects with her students in the author’s old home, coincidentally, on the Sussex coast.
But her world comes to a crashing halt when she learns that her friend and fellow colleague Ella has been murdered…and the crime scene shares some shocking similarities with The Stranger—including the quote “Hell is empty.” DS Kaur is on the case, and believes the murderer is someone both Ella and Clare knew. Not knowing who she can trust, Clare turns to her diary for comfort…only to find one day that someone else has written in it.
Told from the perspectives of Clare, DS Kaur, and Clare's 15-year-old daughter Georgie, you don’t know who's telling the truth in this Gothic murder mystery. Throughout the novel, we slowly but surely get more pieces of The Stranger—until the story is complete and the murderer is revealed. From The Stranger author R.M. Holland’s past haunting the halls of Talgarth High to revealing secrets being spilled everywhere, The Stranger Diaries is a page-turning mystery that will make you sleep with the light on.
Author of the beloved Ruth Galloway series, Elly Griffiths is no stranger to compelling mysteries. Here, she presents readers with relatable characters and so many twists and turns that you’ll be on the edge of your seat as you await what comes next.
Read on for an excerpt from The Stranger Diaries, and then download the book.
‘If you’ll permit me,’ said the Stranger, ‘I’d like to tell you a story. After all, it’s a long journey and, by the look of those skies, we’re not going to be leaving this carriage for some time. So, why not pass the hours with some story-telling? The perfect thing for a late October evening.
‘Are you quite comfortable there? Don’t worry about Herbert. He won’t hurt you. It’s just this weather that makes him nervous. Now, where was I? What about some brandy to keep the chill out? You don’t mind a hip flask, do you?
‘Well, this is a story that actually happened. Those are the best kind, don’t you think? Better still, it happened to me when I was a young man. About your age.
‘I was a student at Cambridge. Studying Divinity, of course. There’s no other subject, in my opinion, except possibly English Literature. We are such stuff as dreams are made on. I’d been there for almost a term. I was a shy boy from the country and I suppose I was lonely. I wasn’t one of the swells, those young men in white bow ties who sauntered across the court as if they had letters patent from God. I kept myself to myself, went to lectures, wrote my essays and started up a friendship with another scholarship boy in my year, a timid soul called Gudgeon, of all things. I wrote home to my mother every week. I went to chapel. Yes, I believed in those days. I was even rather pious—“pi,” we used to say. That was why I was surprised to be invited to join the Hell Club. Surprised and pleased. I’d heard about it, of course. Stories of midnight orgies, of bedders coming in to clean rooms and fainting dead away at what they discovered there, of arcane chants from the Book of the Dead, of buried bones and gaping graves. But there were other stories too. Many successful men had their start at the Hell Club: politicians—even a cabinet member or two—writers, lawyers, scientists, business tycoons. You always knew them because of the badge, a discreet skull worn on the left lapel. Yes, like this one here.
‘So I was happy to be invited to the initiation ceremony. It was held on October 31st. Halloween, of course. All Hallows’ Eve. Yes, of course. It’s Halloween today. If one believed in coincidence one might think that was slightly sinister.
‘To return to my story. The ceremony was simple and took place at midnight. Naturally. The three initiates were required to go to a ruined house just outside the college grounds. In turn, we would be blindfolded and given a candle. We had to walk to the house, climb the stairs and light our candle in the window on the first floor landing. Then we had to shout, as loudly as we could, “Hell is empty!” After all three had completed the task, we could take off our blindfolds and re-join our fellows. Feasting and revelry would follow. Gudgeon . . . did I tell you that poor Gudgeon was one of the three? Gudgeon was worried because, without his glasses, he was almost blind. But, as I told him, we were all blindfolded anyway. A man may see how the world goes with no eyes.’
‘So,’ I say, ‘what’s happening here?’
‘Something bad,’ says Peter.
‘You’re quite right,’ I say, counting to ten silently. ‘What makes you think that?’
‘Well,’ says Una, ‘the setting, for one thing. Midnight on Halloween.’
‘That’s a bit of a cliché,’ says Ted. ‘It’s a cliché because it works,’ says Una. ‘It’s really spooky, with the weather and everything. What’s the betting they get snowed in on the train?’
‘That’s a rip-off of Murder on the Orient Express,’ says Peter.
‘The Stranger pre-dates Agatha Christie,’ I say. ‘What else tells you what sort of story this is?’
‘The narrator is so creepy,’ says Sharon, ‘all that “have a drink from my hip flask and don’t mind Herbert”. Who is Herbert anyway?’
‘A good question,’ I say. ‘What does everyone think?’
‘A deaf mute.’
‘His son. Has to be restrained because he’s a dangerous lunatic.’
‘Actually,’ I say, ‘Ted is right, Herbert is a dog. The companion animal is an important trope in the ghost story genre because an animal can sense things that are beyond human comprehension. What can be scarier than a dog staring at something that isn’t there? Cats are famously spooky, of course. Think of Edgar Allan Poe. And animals were often thought to be witches’ familiars, helping them perform black magic. But Animal characters can be useful for another reason. Can anyone guess what it is?’
No one can. It’s mid-afternoon, nearly break time, and they are thinking of coffee and biscuits rather than fictional archetypes. I look out of the window. The trees by the graveyard are dark even though it’s only four o’clock. I should have saved the short story for the twilight session really, but it’s so difficult to cover everything on a short course. Time to wrap things up.
‘Animals are expendable,’ I say. ‘Authors often kill them to create tension. It’s not as significant as killing a human but it can be surprisingly upsetting.’
The members of the creative writing group go clattering down the stairs in search of caffeine but I stay in the classroom for a bit. It’s very strange being in this part of the school. Only adult education classes get taught here; the rooms are too small and too odd for lessons. This one has a fireplace and a rather disturbing oil painting of a child holding what looks like a dead ferret. I can just imagine the Year 7s trying to disappear up the fireplace like twentyfirst-century chimney sweeps. Most school life at Talgarth High happens in the New Building, a 1970s monstrosity of plate glass and coloured bricks. This building, the Old Building, which was once called Holland House, is really just an annex. It has the dining hall, the kitchens and the chapel, as well as the head teacher’s office. The first floor has rooms which are sometimes used for music practice or drama. The old library is there too, now only frequented by teachers because the students have a modern version in the New Building, with computers and armchairs and paperbacks in carousels. The top floor, which is out-of-bounds to students, is where R.M. Holland’s study is, preserved just as he left it. The creative writing students are always excited to learn that the author of The Stranger actually lived in this house. In fact, he hardly ever left it. He was a recluse, the old-fashioned sort with a housekeeper and a full staff. I’m not sure I would leave the house myself if I had someone to cook and clean for me, to iron the Times and place it on a tray with my morning infusion. But I have a daughter, so I would have to rouse myself eventually. Georgie would probably never get out of bed without me to shout the time up the stairs, a problem R.M. Holland certainly never had, although he may, in fact, have had a daughter. Opinion is divided on this point.
It’s October half-term and, with no pupils around, and spending all my time in the Old Building, it’s easy to imagine that I’m teaching at a university, somewhere ancient and hallowed. There are parts of Holland House that look almost like an Oxford college, if you ignore the New Building and the smell of the gymnasium. I like having this time to myself. Georgie is with Simon and Herbert is in kennels. There’s nothing for me to worry about and, when I get home, there’s nothing to stop me writing all night. I’m working on a biography of R.M. Holland. He’s always interested me, ever since I read The Stranger in a ghost story anthology as a teenager. I didn’t know about his connection to the school when I first applied here. It wasn’t mentioned in the advertisement and the interview was in the New Building. When I found out, it seemed like a sign. I would teach English by day and, in the evenings, inspired by my surroundings, I would write about Holland; about his strange, reclusive life, the mysterious death of his wife, his missing daughter. I made a good start; I was even interviewed for a news item on local TV, walking awkwardly through the Old Building and talking about its previous occupant. But, recently—I don’t know why—the words have dried up. Write every day, that’s what I tell my students. Don’t wait for inspiration, that might not come until the end. The muse always finds you working. Look into your heart and write. But, like most teachers, I’m not brilliant at taking my own advice. I write in my diary every day, but that doesn’t count because no one else is ever going to read it.
I suppose I should go downstairs and get a coffee while I still can. As I get up I look out of the window. It’s getting dark and the trees are blowing in a sudden squall of wind. Leaves gust across the car park and, following their progress, I see what I should have noticed earlier: a strange car with two people sitting inside it. There’s nothing particularly odd about this. This is a school, after all, despite it being half-term. Visitors are not entirely unexpected. They could even be staff members, coming in to prepare their classrooms and complete their planning for next week. But there’s something about the car, and the people inside it, that makes me feel uneasy. It’s an unremarkable grey vehicle—I’m useless at cars but Simon would know the make—something solid and workmanlike, the sort of thing a mini-cab driver would use. But why are its occupants just sitting there? I can’t see their faces but they are both dressed in dark clothes and look, like the car itself, somehow both prosaic and menacing.
It’s almost as if I am expecting a summons of some kind, so I’m not really surprised when my phone buzzes. I see it’s Rick Lewis, my head of department.
‘Clare,’ he says, ‘I’ve got some terrible news.’
Monday 23rd October 2017
Ella is dead. I didn’t believe it when Rick told me. And, as the words began to sink in, I thought: a car crash, an accident, even an overdose of some kind. But when Rick said ‘murdered’, it was as if he was talking a different language.
‘Murdered?’ I repeated the word stupidly.
‘The police said that someone broke into her house last night,’ said Rick. ‘They turned up on my doorstep this morning. Daisy thought I was about to be arrested.’
I still couldn’t put the pieces together. Ella. My friend. My colleague. My ally in the English department. Murdered. Rick said that Tony already knew. He was going to write to all the parents tonight.
‘It’ll be in the papers,’ said Rick. ‘Thank God it’s half-term.’
I’d thought the same thing. Thank God it’s half-term, thank God Georgie’s with Simon. But then I felt guilty. Rick must have realised that he’d got the tone wrong because he said, ‘I’m sorry, Clare’, as if he meant it.
He’s sorry. Jesus.
And then I had to go back to my class and teach them about ghost stories. It wasn’t one of my best teaching sessions. But The Stranger always does its bit, especially as it was dark by the time I’d finished. Una actually screamed at the end. I set them a writing task for the last hour: ‘write about receiving bad news’. I looked at their bent heads as they scribbled their masterpieces (‘The telegram arrived at half-past two . . .’) and thought: if only they knew.
As soon as I got home, I rang Debra. She’d been out with the family and hadn’t heard. She cried, said she didn’t believe it, etc., etc. To think that the three of us had only been together on Friday night. Rick said that Ella was killed some time on Sunday. I remember I’d texted her about the Strictly results and hadn’t had an answer. Was she already dead by then?
It wasn’t so bad when I was teaching or talking to Debra, but now I’m alone, I feel such a sense of . . . well, dread . . . that I’m almost rigid with fear.
I’m sitting here with my diary on the bed and I don’t want to turn the light off. Where is Ella? Have they taken her body away? Have her parents had to identify her? Rick didn’t give me any of these details and, right now, they seem incredibly important.
I just can’t believe that I’ll never see her again.
Want to keep reading? Download The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths, today.
Visibly shaken, Clare tries her best to return to her normal routine of teaching as she grieves the loss of a colleague and friend. But she can’t shake the terror she feels about Ella’s murder, which she expresses in her diary. But little does she know, her diary isn’t safe…and it might just be her own unraveling in this novel that will leave readers chilled to their core.
Part ghost story, part murder-mystery, Elly Griffiths’ tale is a story within a story as the pieces of Ella’s murder and R.M. Holland’s The Stranger come together to form a startling conclusion.
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