Last month I found myself in complete isolation for two weeks (long story; all’s well), and one thing I will say for going nowhere and seeing no one is that you definitely get a lot of reading done. (Watch closely: In a year or so, the publishing industry is going to be overwhelmed by novels in which someone commits an unspeakable, intricately plotted crime without leaving their room.) And the best crime novel I read during that time happened to fit into perhaps my favorite and very specific crime-novel genre: the book-within-the-book mystery.
Elly Griffiths’ “The Stranger Diaries” (published in 2018, now out in paperback) has at its center an English teacher: Clare Cassidy, who specializes in the elaborately curlicued prose of fictional 19th-century gothic writer R.M. Holland, best known for the ghost story “The Stranger.” After Clare’s colleague is found dead, with a mysterious note near her body (“Hell is empty and all the devils are here” — a quote from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”), Clare notices something strange at home: tiny, hand-printed and vaguely sinister annotations in her old diaries.
And off we go, in a story that entwines three distinctive first-person narrative voices (Clare, Clare’s teenage daughter Georgie, and Harbinder Kaur, a police detective investigating the death) and passages from Holland’s book, “The Stranger.” The trio of main characters weigh in on each other, often amusingly (Georgie thinks Kaur is scary, “the sort who looks like she knows exactly what you’re thinking and isn’t impressed by it”), and some haunted-house-type scares provide a pleasing gothic chill. By the time we’ve made it through both “The Stranger” (excerpted, in cliffhanger style, throughout) and “The Stranger Diaries,” applause seemed in order; this book is the sort of literary performance that leaves you wanting more.
Maybe the book-within-a-book crime novel isn’t prevalent enough to be called a genre, but “The Stranger Diaries” made me think of at least one other book: Anthony Horowitz’s delightful “Magpie Murders,” which is both classic 1950s-style murder mystery and contemporary whodunit. (Two is enough for a genre, right? In the movie realm, I’m proud to be the original identifier of the important genre of Movies In Which Robert Redford Dies While Wearing a Cute Khaki Outfit. There are at least two.) Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale” might also qualify? If you have any nominees for this genre, do let me know; seems like I might be overlooking something obvious.
Meanwhile, this month I also enjoyed Richard Osman’s “The Thursday Murder Club,” a witty mystery novel in which four seniors living in a pastoral and excessively llama-laden British retirement village attempt to solve a real-life crime. Osman, a debut novelist, is a well-known quiz show host on British television, and based on this book I would absolutely watch one of his shows: The mystery itself is a bit run-of-the-mill, but the characters and the writing are a treat. (There are many complications to being an amateur detective in a seniors community, not the least of which is that you have to compete for meeting-room space with recreational groups like Chat and Crochet, “formed by members who had become disillusioned with Knit and Natter.”)
Everyone in the central quartet, especially the two women, are more complex than they originally seem, and while the tone is predominantly light and funny, Osman finds some moments of sweet poignancy. Joyce, whose diary excerpts pepper the book, remembers a trip to London to see “Jersey Boys” with a group of friends now gone. “You always know when it’s your first time, don’t you? But you rarely know when it’s your final time,” she muses, wishing she’d kept the program.
Finally, should you be in need of some fresh (or even just-slightly-stale) crime fiction, your local library just might have a treat for you. I stopped by the Lake City branch of Seattle Public Library the other day to pick up some holds and was delighted to see a sign offering “Grab-and-Go Bags” to patrons on request. Asking for a mystery bag, I was promptly handed a brown paper sack containing three books: Michael Connelly’s “The Reversal” (which I’d read before and liked a lot; it’s one where lawyer Mickey Haller and LAPD detective Harry Bosch team up), Mary Higgins Clark’s “Where Are You Now?” (never read any MHC, but why not?), and Diane Mott Davidson’s “Prime Cut” (ditto). Though the books were well-loved older paperbacks, it felt like getting a present. (A present, to be clear, that you need to eventually give back: Although the books aren’t officially circulated — they won’t appear on your library record — the library wants them returned when you’re done, to share with other patrons.)
And you can get such a present, too, at the seven currently open-for-curbside-service branches at Seattle Public Library (Central, Ballard, Broadview, Douglass-Truth, High Point, Lake City, Rainier Beach). SPL librarian Linda Johns told me that staffers at each branch put together the bags based on their available stock and what they think their patrons will most enjoy. You can specify adult or youth books, as well as genre (if you’re weary of crime fiction — but why would you be? — you can also request general fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, romance and other genres.) King County Library System is also offering “surprise bags,” of five titles each, at its Curbside to Go locations. More information: spl.org, kcls.org. Happy reading!