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Gentlemen & Players is a crime novel written by the very talented author Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat). Normally I am not a fan of Harris' crime writing, I prefer the magic that is involved in some of her other work. But after a few pages I found myself easily drawn in to this one, and struggled to put it down.
The story is set in a fictional, boys-only private school named St Oswalds. As with many of Harris's other books the story is written from two points of view, in this case from the point of view of the child of a former porter, named Snyde, and the Classics professor Rob Straitley.
Straitly is a very old fashioned character, he is the last Classics teacher left in the school, hates computers and whiteboards and prefers to use his pigeon hole and a blackboard with chalk. He has been at the school for over 30 years and is rapidly approaching his "centenary", his 100th term as a teacher. He is a crotchety character, uncomfortable around women (he has never married), scornful of some of his colleagues and very protective of his students. He is also one of Snyde's main targets, as he was a witness to an incident many years ago that involved one of his students.
Snyde on the other hand is very modern, adept with mobile phones and computers, using them to leave a trail that incriminates various staff members with pornographic images and fake browser histories. Snyde was also a witness to the incident, and through the book the story is slowly pieced together by these two characters.
The whole thing starts, as most school books do, in September with a new school year and a new term. New staff members, including Snyde under a new name with a fake CV, and reorganisation with some of the classrooms. Straitley's year does not start well as he finds his office has been taken from him and given to the languages department, and during the term that the book covers other aspects of his teaching are eroded. You get the feeling that he would actually be a better head of the languages department as he is aware of the other teachers and their personal problems, and cares less for politics and Health and Safety and more about those he works with and those he teaches.
Snyde on the other hand is a predator, bent on destroying the school and Straitley, using one pupil to this end. Jackson Knight is in Straitley's form and feels bullied and victimised, although both teachers agree that he is mostly just another spoilt brat who thinks the world should revolve around him. At one point he accuses Straitley of anti-Semitism, claiming the teacher is picking on him for being Jewish. I will not, obviously, ruin the rest of the book for you.
During the term Straitley is slowly pushed towards increasingly dangerous health problems as the speed of the story picks up, stolen items, accusations from pupils, graffiti on the fence of his home. Likewise the story about Snyde picks up, the past, the parents (including an absent mother) and Straitley's role in everything and what he did to deserve such torment. Harris balances both characters well, ending each chapter with enough information to make you go "and...!?" before swapping back to the other character, so you are compelled to turn the pages and find out more. I also like the fact that she set the book in a school with an old history, but kept the book in the present day, where teachers are facing increasing pressure to keep "up to date" and where pupils are constantly certain of their "rights", making the jobs of teachers incredibly difficult as they tread the fine line between politics and getting the job done. The cries of "you're picking on me because I'm Jewish" and "he hit me" are words that teachers are terrified to hear as they can destroy a career, even if they are based on nothing but the words of a whiney, self-obsessed brat.
My one complaint about this book is that it is a bit too long, and the perspective changes a bit too quickly in some parts. But the ending will literally blow your socks off and make you flick back through the previous chapters going "how on earth did I miss that?" so it is definitely worth taking the time to read it.
This is a very good book writing by a very good author, if you like crime novels with a bit of a twist then I highly recommend you pick this up from your local bookshop or library.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, from an author I had never come across before.
Gentlemen and Players is a story of a child growing up in a troubled - and comparitively poor - home who looks upon the prestigious St Oswald's grammar school for boys with awe and longing. In time this main character finds a way to become a 'pupil' at this school, despite not being able to afford the required fees, and enters a whole new world and ultimately triggers a series of unfortunate events.
The story is told from the point of view of both the child (both as a child and once grown up) and of one of the teachers, or 'masters', at the grammar school and this enables the tale to be told very well as we see two points of view.
Again it is one of those books whereby I cannot say too much without gving vital pieces of the story away and also it is much more fun if you find it all out for yourself! Suffice to say that it is a very interesting, easy to follow and gripping read and that when the twist comes at the end you will most likely not be expecting it! I certainly had no clue at all until it was revealed and it is not often I can say that about a book, it really took me by surprise and I loved that!
There's no doubt that there's great writing here, scanning like a torch around the darkened corridors of the world of being young, at schools and being old, in teaching. It certainly reminds one of 'Lucky Jim' by Kingsley Amis, and similar common-room tv dramas such as Teachers. At least on the entertaining side.....for here a darker, poorly-nurtured world also lurks and looks set to dominate overall.
This penetrating, cyncial first-person narration, fuels the book and is almost too clever for its own good, despite being constructed with reference to a chess game. The lesser characters (mostly teachers) suffer and tend to be very sketchy surname-references, because the emphasis for the book's pace is placed on an intinsic Grudge, and its murderous effects. It's certainly turns pages though.
The plot itself is a clinically devised affair, hatched within an emotionally-affected youngster, and resulting envy and damage is inflicted on the institution of 'good' English schools, no thanks to the class division between it and a nearby comprehensive. The book scores in addressing a likely scenario of someone directly affected by such a division, and facing up to the smug world of schools in general, that can make insufficient room for genuine understanding and 'therapy', with no cost to reputation. Young love also tears along its merciless edge, with a strong cocktail of negativity from both sides, or classes.
The central twist is welcome without being predictable, serving to further challenge the institutions of those like St Oswalds Grammar School (for boys), surely - thankfully - more rare these days? Ultimately, it's a dark tale, and the resonance of its hyper-cynical, hyper-realist narration lives on beyond an essential blindness, but cosy warmth of the eternal teaching world. All those individual, potent wills and the ensuing energy-play within a general Collective.
It strongly reminds us of the cold, threatening restlessness within the process of seeking to grow up happy, loved and balanced. Oddly, we feel the narrator still has some right to this, even after this relation of a personal, self-satisfied, horrific game.
"The place is St Oswald's, an old and long-established boys' grammar school in the north of England. A new year has just begun, and for the staff and boys of the School, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, Latin master, eccentric, and veteran of St Oswald's, is finally reluctantly contemplating retirement. But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the School, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for fifteen years, is about to erupt. Who is "Mole", the mysterious insider, whose cruel practical jokes are gradually escalating
? And how can an old and half-forgotten scandal become the stone that brings down a giant?" This is a partial quote of the plot of Joanne Harris' newest novel, Gentlemen and Players, as described on her web page (http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk/), and what a story it is!
While Joanne Harris may not be the greatest novelist around these days, she does have a very good knack for telling a compelling story. Those of you familiar with her name will recall her most famous novel, "Chocolat", which was a major motion picture of the same name. "Chocolat", while fun, wasn't her best piece of fiction, nor was its (semi-sequel) "Blackberry Wine". Personally, I preferred the last of that trilogy, "Five Quarters of the Orange" to the other two. Of course, this made me feel that her writing skills were improving. I was later disappointed with her collection of short stories ("Jigs & Reels"), and (possibly incorrectly) warned off reading "Coastliners" but I still hadn't given up on Ms. Harris. With "Gentlemen and Players", however, I think she's taken her storytelling to new heights, and this is by far her best work.
What I've always appreciated about Harris' work is how strongly she builds her characters and that she uses them to drive the story rather than the other way around. In order to do this, Joanne takes a first person voice and speaks to the readers through the characters. While this is easy to do when you're writing through the eyes of only one character, it is more difficult when doing the same through two or more persons. One way is to make the "voices" so distinctive that it is impossible to mix them up. In "Gentelmen and Players" Harris took the easier method of indicating the character speaking at the start of each chapter heading. Mind you, her method of indication was more subtle than naming the person Harris instead used a symbol as a code in this case, a drawing of a pawn (as in the game of chess) where the white one was the protagonist and the black one was the antagonist. Unfortunately, I didn't realize this when I first started reading the book and until I figured this out, I was a bit puzzled by the whole thing. Thankfully, if you decide to read this, you won't have that problem since I've given that clue away to you. Don't worry, telling you this won't spoil your reading in fact, I think I would have preferred to have known this before I began this book.
There is one obvious advantage to using two first-person narratives, and that is the writer can use one character to describe the physical aspects of the other. This is in lieu of third-person descriptions, which are often boring and usually distract from the characters and progress of the story. Harris does this so well that if Roy Straitley was a real person, I'm sure I could pick him out of a crowd. I could say she is less successful with her antagonist, except for the fact that she needed to keep as much of an air of mystery about the "Mole" as was humanly possible since some of the mystery behind this 'trouble-maker' is even withheld from the readers until near the end of the book.
If I'm starting to sound illusive here, there is a reason for it. While previous novels by Harris have concentrated on conflicts that were for the most part out in the open, this book borders on being a mystery novel. Mind you, since the antagonist speaks directly to the reader, and from early on in the book, lays out the plan for St. Oswald's destruction as it occurs, the truth behind the problems is kept from the other characters while very little is kept from the reader. Of course, with a good mystery, there are always things that one guesses at one point or another; only to find out we were wrong as the action progresses, and this is no exception.
This venture into the mystery (or even crime fiction) genre seems a step in a slightly different direction than she had in "Chocolat" and "Blackberry Wine". Those books used a good deal of 'magical reality' to help wield events and people, which set her apart from other writers at the time. Here, wits and fully human abilities/frailties are the only things that assist/hinder the antagonist. While this is more realistic, it also means that the writer must have as much or more intelligence than their characters and that is more difficult to achieve than you might think. Still, Harris succeeds on all points here, and her plots and characters are now strong enough so that she no longer needs a 'magical' crutch to help her. This makes me think that Harris is growing as a writer and I'm certainly looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.
With all this praise, I'm sure you're wondering if I have any niggles with this book. Well, that little thing about not being totally sure who was speaking until I figured out the black pawn/white pawn business would be one. Another small other problem was that there are occasional inserts of Latin that aren't translated and I didn't fully understand. Still, it wasn't enough to reduce my enjoyment of this book, and in fact, I found that it worked well with the level of language that she uses. Harris writes with a very simple but sophisticated style that isn't overly flowery or poetic, but also isn't overly simplistic either. In other words, she doesn't write 'down' to her readers but she also doesn't write over their heads. This is a fine line to tread, but has been one she has repeatedly achieved with aplomb in all her books, and is something I have always admired.
In sum, this book is Joanna Harris's best novel yet. She has a very compelling story that while not being a true mystery novel, has enough twists to make any mystery genre lover very happy. The characters are strongly written and develop within the action of the book in a natural and believable fashion. The language she uses is perfectly balanced, making this a very well rounded tale indeed. I'd like to give this four and a half stars due to my few niggles, but since there isn't any option for that, I'll give it a full five stars and say that Harris has written her best book ever and I cannot recommend it more highly than that.
Thanks for reading.
Davida Chazan (c) February 2007
As mentioned above, Joanne Harris has her own web page which is located at www.joanne-harris.co.uk and has information about all the books she's published, and more.
You can buy this book via Amazon.co.uk for £5.59 or through their marketplace from £0.44.
Details of the book are:
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Black Swan; New Ed edition (5 Jun 2006)
Although I enjoyed the film Chocolat, Ive never been particularly drawn to read any of Joanne Harris books. However, as soon as I read a review of Gentlemen & Players, I knew I had to read it. So determined to read it was I that I actually bought a copy something I rarely do these days, preferring to save paper and borrow books from libraries. Luckily, I wasnt disappointed. There is an air of mystery about the story that drew me into it and kept me going until I had got to the end.
Roy Straitley is Latin master at St Oswalds, a boys grammar school. About to retire, he is expecting to get through his final terms without much in the way of surprises. However, with the new team brings a host of new teachers, one of whom at least seems to be a trouble-maker. Strange things begin to happen. Little things at first, like the disappearance of objects. Then petty jealousies are forced to the surface and suddenly St Oswalds doesnt seem like the nice place it once was.
While the members of the school are kept in the dark, the reader finds out that there is more than just a trouble-maker. There is someone with a grudge so intense that nothing short of murder will make up for the wrongs that have been done to them. Can Roy Straitley find out what is going on? Or is he responsible for the grudge in the first place?
Although not strictly crime fiction, this does exactly what I like in a book it provides a environment in which a limited number of characters can be responsible for going on. As such, it provides the perfect background for a psychological examination of the characters in the book. One of the two narrators of the story, Roy Straitley thinks he has seen it all. Having taught in the school for years, he knows all the gossip, how the relationships between the members of staff work and he knows how to deal with the boys. The sudden realisation that there is someone in the school, probably on the school staff, who wants to harm the schools reputation and that of all those in it, is a shock to his system and he finds it hard to handle. Although Joanne Harris is obviously a woman and young to boot, I think she put together the character of an elderly schoolmaster, set in his ways, very well. Roy is definitely the mainstay of the book; although he is not perfect, my sympathies were with him throughout the book and I found him a totally natural character.
The ghostly presence of the trouble-maker is a real treat for any lover of psychological thrillers. Little bits of information are given away about him throughout the book, starting with his childhood, which was clearly not easy. Although he tells his part of the story in his own words, the information we are given is leaked out slowly and we are always kept waiting in the knowledge that something more important is going to be explained at a later point in the book. This is a carefully drawn-out character that actually didnt inspire all that much sympathy in me. There is a real feeling of pettiness in his reaction to what happens to him and my sympathies definitely laid with Roy Straitley.
There was a certain amount of mysteriousness about the new schoolteachers for obvious reasons. We are never quite sure until the last few pages which of them, if indeed any, are the guilty party. Little clues are given and you suspect you know the answer, only for your ideas to be ripped up a couple of chapters later.
So was the book as good as I had been led to believe? I definitely loved it. It intrigued me from page one and I struggled to put it down. I love books like this that keep me on my toes. Nothing was quite as it seems and every chapter brought something to my attention that I hadnt quite expected. Overall, this is a very strong book, perfect for fans of mysteries. Not having read any of Joanne Harris other books, I cant really compare it, although I suspect from having seen Chocolat and from what I have read that it is quite different. Even though I loved this book, I cant say that it has inspired me to read any of the fruit books.
It wasnt perfect though. There were a couple of things that didnt quite sit right with me. One was that the third quarter of the novel was very drawn out and could definitely have been quite a bit shorter than it was. It wasnt tedious enough to make me want to put it down, but I did find myself getting frustrated because I really wanted to know what the outcome was going to be. Another niggle was that Joanne Harris seemed to be a bit too clever at times. This book is very well put together, but the story at times was so intricate and complicated that I had to really concentrate to have even a hope in hell of working out what was going on. This was exacerbated by the fact that both of the main characters tell their story in the first person, which means it wasnt always immediately clear who was telling the story. Finally, I had guessed before the end who the trouble-maker was. This wasnt the end of the world though and I actually finished the book feeling extremely satisfied that I had managed to work it all out.
In conclusion then, yes, I did enjoy it and despite my niggles, I can highly recommend it. I love books that keep me going into the early hours of the morning (even if my work the next day doesnt) and it deserves five stars.
I bought the book from play.com for ₤5.49. Published by Black Swan, it has 506 pages. ISBN: 0552770026.