Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.
They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. This is the tale of an obsession that goes very wrong, and brews plans for thirteen years before the revenger wreaks absolute havoc by opening a closet full of skeletons that brings a community to its knees.
I’ll say at the outset that I loved this book. It’s a complex and twisty thriller with delicious moments of black humour set in a northern boys grammar school. The plot piles on layer after layer and turns at every corner, but satisfyingly just about allowed me to think I’d worked it all out – I felt very smug, and then wham! one last twist.
The story is told from two viewpoints. Firstly veteran classics teacher Mr Straitley who is planning his retirement, but not until he’s completed his hundredth term at St Oswalds. He’s seen it all, or so he thinks, but the creeping march of technology into the classroom is leaving him behind. He’s still good at staffroom politics though, and keeps on top of all the gossip. It’s the first day of term – new teachers – how will they fit in?
I can usually fit any fresher into the appropriate category within a few minutes’ acquaintance. The geographer, Mr Easy, is a typical Suit: smart, clean-cut and built for paperwork. The Games man, God help us, is a classic Jobsworth. Mr Meek, the computer man, is rabbity beneath his fluffy beard. The linguist, Miss Dare, might be a trainee Dragon if not for the humorous twist to her mouth; I must remember to try her out, see what she’s made of. The new English teacher – Mr Keane – might not be as straightforward – not actually a Suit, not quite a Beaver, but far too young for the tweedy set.
Then there is the son of one of the old school caretakers. He had to go to the local comprehensive where he was hopelessly bullied - there was no place for him at St Oswalds. He played truant, and insinuated himself into the grammar school so well, that everyone believed he was a pupil, but he has been nursing a bitter grudge, and thirteen years later its time for him to seek his revenge.
So, we have the two narrators, one young and one old, and two timelines – the present and thirteen years earlier. Harris cleverly swaps between them throughout; although sections have clear breaks, you’re not always initially sure who is speaking when. I love novels set in schools and combining that with a real thriller of a plot made this a winner for me. The teachers in particular were really well-drawn – you can recognise all the types – they probably taught you and I, (I had a particular candidate in mind for Mr Straitley). This is also a thriller with a great sense of humour – indeed on Harris’ website, she introduces Gentlemen and Players with quotes from Molesworth – the funniest set of books about skool ever.
I sped through this novel’s 505 pages – it never felt long at all and it entertained throughout, I loved it.
(9/10) I bought this book.