It all starts with a nightmare. In this nightmare, Daisy discovers that she is dead. While walking her dog, she came across her own headstone in the cemetery, giving her date of death in 1955. But why should that be? Daisy is very much alive, and cannot recall anything special about the day in question. Her husband tells her to forget about it, and her mother does the same. But then Daisy’s estranged father gives her a call. He asks her to pay a man named Steve Pinata, who has just bailed him out of prison.
Daisy obeys, but her father gets cold feet and runs away from Pinata’s office, not wanting his daughter to see him in his current state. When Daisy arrives, she finds out that Pinata does investigatory work as well, and so she asks him to investigate her life and find her “missing day”. Eventually, Pinata discovers that Daisy’s grave is real, but the name on the headstone is different. What is this “stranger” doing in Daisy’s grave, and what is the connection between them? Well, you’ll have to read the novel to find out.
Some of the major themes of the novel are about origins and parenting. Steve Pinata is a man with no background – he was abandoned at an orphanage and does not know who his parents were. He doesn’t even know what race he belongs to and as a result he isn’t racist—if he were, he might very well attack his own race in the process. This leaves him feeling like an outsider, a cold, dispassionate observer. Yet over the course of the book, the façade slowly crumbles as he becomes more and more involved with Daisy’s problem, and it becomes a highly personal mission by the end. (I can also report a small miracle: although Pinata was raised by priests and nuns, there was no sex abuse involved. No, really!)
Parenting is also what leads to the whole situation in the first place, with Daisy being smothered by her mother’s domineering personality. Her mother isn’t evil, she just wants what is best for Daisy. And according to her, what’s best for Daisy is a solid marriage. Daisy has that, so why question it and put her entire lifestyle at stake? In this respect, Mrs. Harker mirrors another mother in this novel, whose daughter Juanita is a dark reflection of Daisy, having no stabilising presence in her life and being constantly in trouble with the law.
Overall, A Stranger in My Grave is a brilliant book that absolutely must be read by any self-respecting mystery fan. No praise of mine could possibly do the book justice. It is a tour-de-force in every way. Plotting, characters, themes… all are at their finest, and the surprise in the book’s very last line will probably surprise most readers. If you’re unfamiliar with Millar, this is an excellent starting point.