Real life and fiction collide in the modern Gothic mystery 'The Stranger Diaries'

Real life and fiction collide in the modern Gothic mystery 'The Stranger Diaries'

Thursday, 5 August, 2021

The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.

This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.


Oh, dear. Things are really now what they seem on the campus of Talgarth High. The students and teachers are beset by mysterious and violent happenings — all exacerbated by the lingering shadow of the (fictional) 19th-century author R.M. Holland. The Gothic atmosphere, thick as an October fog, will transport you to the not-so-hallowed Victorian-era Holland Hall. Grab a candle and your courage.

Ghosts aren’t real. Right? That’s the question our heroine Clare Cassidy struggles to answer in this modern Gothic murder mystery. Betrayal, illicit affairs, witchcraft, and secrets committed to a diary haunt this can’t-put-it-down novel.

Sure, Clare sometimes wishes she was a teacher at a more prestigious school — Talgarth isn’t exactly Oxford. But in the soft light of October, it can be easy to imagine she’s teaching at a university, ‘somewhere ancient and hallowed.’ Plus, it’s home to Holland Hall, named for its previous occupant: R.M. Holland, author of the Gothic story The Stranger and the subject of Clare’s biography-in-progress.

If she’s not entirely happy, she’s at least settled in her choices. And if she’s sometimes distracted by the notion that there are ghosts at Holland Hall, that’s only to be expected from someone with her head stuck in the 19th century.

Then real tragedy strikes: Clare’s co-worker and best friend is murdered. The police are convinced the murderer is someone Clare knows because found next to the body is a handwritten note inscribed with a line from The Stranger.

Soon, everyone is a suspect — students, other teachers, the philandering head of the school — and their dark secrets are brought into the light, including the ones Clare meticulously scribbles in her diary every day.

This is page-turning, stay-up-too-late-to-finish-it fun, and it name-drops the best of Victorian authors like Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins. With a wink to Collins’ The Woman in White, this book is told in the first person by several narrators, each moving the story forward and casting doubt on the tales told by the others.

The structure and the judiciously doled-out clues keep everyone guessing until the thrilling denouement when all the mysteries are resolved and the ghosts are finally laid to rest.

Bonus spooky fun: The complete text of the short story ‘The Stranger’ by the fictional author R.M. Holland is found in its entirety at the end of this novel.

‘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. — Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries

by Elly Griffiths

This gothic mystery (352 pages) was published in March of 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book takes you to a creepy school in England. Melissa read The Stranger Diaries and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it. is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

The Stranger Diaries


Top image courtesy of Thomas Kelley/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

An isolated school, a frustrated and misunderstood teenager, a rash of unsettling and inexplicable experiences. This novel from Louis Duncan, the queen of YA horror, is a timely, thrilling tale for readers of any age.
An isolated hotel. A brutal snowstorm. A mysterious death. And a high school music festival?! This novel has everything! It's a thrill ride, and we love when an author bends our favorite literary tropes to her will.
The final year of college can be a sensitive time for anyone. But for these acting students, it's even more fraught — with Shakespearean revenge and betrayal, lust and love and broken hearts... both onstage and off.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.