When I was initially brainstorming the story that would become The Stranger, I knew before anything else that I wanted to set the story during the Second World War. It would be a story about the women left behind by the men, who kept the country running in their absence. My next decision was that the action - unlike so many stories about the Home Front - wouldn’t be taking place in London during the Blitz. Instead, I wanted to write about Cornwall. Britain’s most south-westerly county has long held me in its thrall and I thought the landscape - with its secret coves, smuggling history and sheer isolation - would make the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery.
The thing about war - even if you’re not actually in the thick of the fighting - is that it’s an enormous disruptor of everyday life. The normal rules are suspended and, in a sense, anything goes. If you read personal accounts of ordinary people who live through extraordinary times, the same sentiment crops up again and again: they lived each day as if it was their last. And, at the risk of sounding cynical, this sort of heightened, almost apocalyptic atmosphere is a gift to any novelist. Characters who would normally be stifled by strict social convention are suddenly let off the hook, with lots of drama and chaos ensuing.
The Stranger is set during the long, hot summer of 1940, right at the beginning of the war, when things were looking very bleak for the Allies. France had surrendered, we were in full retreat, and the Nazis were expected to invade at any moment. Little wonder it was dubbed Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’. In Cornwall, the rumour mill was working overtime: German spies were said to be hiding out in caves, scraps of parachute silk had been found in the hedgerows, U-boats were apparently lying in wait at the bottom of the south coast’s quiet creeks.
Into this heady mix, I tipped my cast of characters - a group of women who would never normally have mixed. Three land girls, all different ages and backgrounds, have been sent to Penhallow Hall to grow vegetables for the Women’s Land Army, where they encounter anxious Eleanor, who owns the hall, and her bully of a mother. There’s only one thing they have in common and that’s secrets. No one is telling anyone else the truth and as a result, none of them know who they can trust. My rebellious main character, Diana Devlin, revels in all this uncertainty at first. As she says at the beginning of the book, ‘When one is as hopelessly bored as I am, one relishes a bit of danger.’ Of course, at this early stage, she doesn’t realise quite how much danger she’ll soon be in…
The Stranger by Kate Riordan is published by Penguin Books, £7.99.
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