Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

GENRE: thriller/mystery/crime novel

For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, groomed for success by the likes of Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years. This year, however, the wind of unwelcome change is blowing, and Straitley is finally, reluctantly, contemplating retirement. As the new term gets under way, a number of incidents befall students and faculty alike, beginning as small annoyances but soon escalating in both number and consequence. St. Oswald's is unraveling, and only Straitley stands in the way of its ruin. But he faces a formidable opponent with a bitter grudge and a master strategy that has been meticulously planned to the final, deadly move.


This book was an absolutely amazing read to me on so many levels. I am well familiar with Joanne Harris, as I have read the majority of her novels, but with this book she deviated from her usual style, since this is a thriller/suspense novel, and I can only say this – brava, Joanne Harris. This is definitely one of the best thrillers I have had the pleasure to read and it is definitely my favourite Joanne Harris novel to date.

At first, I confess that I was sceptical about reading this book. Reading about boys in a prestigious grammar school is not my usual cup of tea, but I am glad my scepticism turned into admiration and excitement. The novel begins at a relatively slow pace, but it’s not the sort of slow pace that makes you feel bored and you want things to speed up. With the initial slow pacing, the author already begins to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery. The novel is one big mystery and suspense.

What I really loved about the novel is that it is designed as a chess play. Now, I have to say that I am a lousy chess player because I am afraid to take risks in general and this novel is about how great a chess player one must be to accomplish their deadly goals – composed, calculating, able to predict the opponent’s next move and always be one step ahead everyone else. This is the essence of the novel and the basis for the crimes that start to happen in the old, traditional and prestigious St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys.

The novel is narrated by two men, Professor Straitley, a Latin master who is starting his 100th term, and a former pupil, now a teacher at St. Oswald’s, who is back to take revenge on the whole school for things that happened in the past when he was a boy attending this school. Their points-of-view alternate and it’s very intriguing to read their different views on certain events, past and present. One of them plots, the other one begins to remember and suspect, but the reader can’t know until the very last moment what will happen. The avenger is a brilliant chess player, indeed, literally and figuratively. To give you an idea of what sort of person the new teacher, bent on vengeance, is, this is how he first introduces himself to the reader: “If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal.” I just knew from then on that I was in for a treat.

He was always an outsider, not really a part of St. Oswald’s, with an alcoholic father that he could never be proud of. He makes it clear in the beginning that he was never officially a St. Oswald boy, so this is no spoiler. He was the gardener’s son and as such he could not even dream of becoming part of the school life, but his desire to be just that was too strong to be squashed right at the beginning, so he found a way to become a St. Oswald boy. But, things were never easy and resentment kept building inside him, until something dreadful happened and everything ended. Now, he is after St. Oswald’s, intent on bringing it down for what it made him suffer and for what it took away from him. His plan is clever and can only be accomplished by a “chess expert”. He will bring down the establishment with scandal and although he is mean and filled with hatred, I found myself admiring his moves and way of thinking. I mean, he’s not a random, hot-headed avenger. He has had fifteen years to plan his revenge in cold blood. He is a great, very intriguing character that, at times, made by blood run cold.

The second narrator, Straitley, has been a teacher at St. Oswald’s for more than 30 years, and before that, he was a St. Oswald boy himself. He introduces the reader to school life, other teachers, traditions, way of work, curriculum, that sort of thing. I don’t really know how things work in British public schools (that is, private schools in America), but Harris’s reincarnation of school life in a British public school seemed very genuine to me. I hope I’m not wrong. And, interestingly, reading about school life was not boring at all. Straitley is very clever and when things start to happen, he begins to suspect something, but he’s always one step behind the avenger. There is something Straitley doesn’t know: he is also a part of the deadly chess game and he has been cast as the white knight.

Apart from an intricately and cleverly arranged plot filled with mystery, suspense and crime, the novel shows how much hatred resentment can breed. So, it does not only focus on the plot, but on human emotions as well, in particular the darker side of emotions, which was really thrilling to read about. When one receives constant rejection, anger begins to bubble inside them and it can easily excel.

This novel was a great read for me; I could hardly put it down. I have absolutely no complaints about it; it’s just perfectly constructed, with constant suspense and mystery sucking you right in. The final revelation was such a surprise; it’s the sort of check mate you definitely don’t see coming. I remember reading that part and swearing aloud in surprise. My sister went to check on me and I explained to her, laughing, that I just read one of the most unexpected plot twists ever. Seriously, no matter how good at you are at following mysteries and finding out the endings yourselves, you won’t crack this one until Harris has delivered it to you. I started to suspect something only one chapter before the revelation, but it still hit me in the face. Just, wow.

I definitely recommend this book. I’d say it’s the sort of thriller/mystery/crime novel that can be also read by those who are not keen on this genre. I borrowed it from a library, but if you buy it, you won’t be throwing your money away.



Unknown said...

Wow! 5 stars! This one's been sitting on my shelf for awhile now. I love Joanne Harris' books...will have to read this one soon :-)

Blodeuedd said...

Thriller/mystery/crime, oh no! Those are the genres I like the least in the world :(
But I really should give them ago anyway, right`? :)

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

@booksploring: yes, 5 stars!;) It really is a great read. If you like Joanne Harris, read this one, asap.

@Blodeuedd: This book can really be read by those who don't like this genre, so if you give it a try, you might not be disappointed.;)

Julie P said...

I haven't read this author before, but Five Quarters Of An Orange is on my TBR shelf and I am reading it for a challenge this year....

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

A. I like the cover you show way more than the one that goodreads has for this-it seems more atmospheric.

B. I'm also a bad chess player, for basically the same reasons. I wish I could formulate ten moves in advance and predict my opponent's moves...but I can't.

C. This is now really high my list after your praise of it-I will try to get to it later this year! Thanks for the rec!

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

@Julie: Oh, cool! I hope you like Joanne Harris.

@Bookworm: I prefer this cover too, and I'm glad someone else is a bad chess player.;) I hope once you read it, this book meets your expectations!

Jan von Harz said...

Wow this sound fantastic. I love all the elements in the plot and your review makes me want to run out and scoop this one up. Thanks!