I’d temporarily forgotten that it was Halloween. I’d arranged to meet Gary in the Compass, which is in the nearest village to Talgarth High. The streets seemed to throng with midget witches and devils as doting parents ushered their offspring on a middle-class begging spree. Hell is empty and all the devils are here. I hoped Mum would have some callers tonight. She would love the chance to coo over a bunch of mini-zombies. If it was me, I’d turn off the lights and pretend to be dead.
Even The Compass had got in on the act. I had to duck under spiders’ webs to get to the bar and, when I spotted Gary, he was sitting at a corner table with a pumpkin-shaped candle in front of him.
commentary: Is there anything that Elly Griffiths can’t do?
Her Ruth Galloway detective novels (much featured on the blog – click here for the most recent one, Dark Angel) form one of my favourite current series. Then she started another great series – the Mephisto books. Now she has written a standalone, and it is wonderful.
It has a complex and beautifully-done setup – though not at all difficult to follow: it is only mystifying in the right kind of ways. There are several different narrators, looking at a murder and other sinister goings on at a school based in an old house.
Everything is linked to a Victorian writer of ghost stories, a man who once lived in the old house: his study is preserved there, and one of the main protagonists, Clare, is writing a book about him.
He is famed above all for a sinister ghost story, The Stranger: and this story-within-the-book is so well-done that I am going to quote from it too – this is the opening passage of The Stranger Diaries:
‘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 loved everything about The Stranger Diaries: I always enjoy a modern book that has a strand set in the past, and there it was, done to a turn. But the story-within-the-story was also beautifully done – isn’t that opening just perfect?
And of course, as with all Elly Griffiths books, there are plenty of funny lines and razor-sharp observations about modern life – whether it’s Strictly on TV, or this about an ex-husband’s new life and new wife:
‘She’s OK. A bit tired. Ocean still isn’t sleeping through the night.’The two main women, Clare and Harbinder, are both terrific, and the switches of POV between them are hilarious, as they are not natural best friends. Harbinder's first line is 'I disliked Clare Cassidy from the outset', though we know they are going to have to co-operate.
I don’t blame her. She’s probably traumatised by her ridiculous name. I bet Simon has decamped to the spare room. He looks pretty well-rested to me.
The book is also brilliant on that parents’ nightmare of finding out that they don’t know as much about their children’s lives as they thought they did. ‘Of course I know her interests and friends…’
OK I am running out of superlatives.
The Stranger Diaries is a great book, and you should read it. I’m also going to be taking part in a Blog Tour for it next week.
Elly Griffiths is very good on her characters’ clothes, but I thought I’d go with Halloween this time instead. I was pondering that perhaps in this day and age it isn’t good to use pictures of random children in their costumes, and then luckily the Chief Guest Blogger, Colm Redmond, came up with these splendid pictures from a pub in Manchester: the Brewski in Chorlton.
The man on the train is by the great James Tissot, from the Athenaeum website. Sometimes it’s better just to imagine the appearance of a man telling a ghost story, but this chap had the right look in his eye, I loved this picture.