Joanne Harris


"Gentlemen and Players"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAY 1, 2006)

"If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal. It's just a boundary, meaningless and arbitrary as all others -- a line drawn in the dirt."

Gentlemen & Players is a riveting and stunningly complex novel of psychological suspense. The setting is St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys in England, a place of hallowed tradition. Roy Straitley is the school's Latin teacher, a man who is approaching his sixty-fifth birthday with trepidation. He knows that the school's administration regards him as something of a nuisance, a dinosaur who refuses to toe the line and change with the times. Straitley is a terrific instructor, but he rebels against the use of computers (which he loathes), chafes at having to obey mindless rules, and fails to defer to his superiors. As a result, the head of St. Oswald's attempts to make Straitley's life miserable in an effort to force him into retirement.

The other protagonist is the child of John Snyde, the Head Porter of St. Oswald's. Young Snyde, like Straitley, is also a rebel. He daydreams and reads books, trying to avoid the anger of his drunken father who is raising him alone. The child misses his mother who walked out on the family years earlier, and he has no interest in pretending to be the son his father always wanted. He is insanely jealous of the privileged boys who attend St. Oswald's and embarks on a daring plan. He pretends to be a student at the school, blends in with the other chaps, and even befriends an older student, with whom he gets into all kinds of mischief. Snyde is an adolescent with serious emotional problems, but there is no one to help and guide him. As he says forlornly, "At thirteen, everything counts; there are sharp edges on everything, and all of them cut."

Harris has constructed a tale worthy of Ruth Rendell. Gentlemen & Players exposes the moral decay that often hides behind an innocuous facade. The author digs deep into the psyche of her characters, exploring how a powerful and unchecked obsession can sometimes drive a psychotic individual to commit unspeakable acts. She also tackles such themes as what makes a teacher effective and memorable, how economic and social inequality breed resentment, and the detrimental effect of dysfunctional parents on a child's personality.

Harris's prose is highly literate and beautifully descriptive. Her characters are fully realized and the plot is inventive, surprising, sardonically funny, and deeply moving. The ending is so shocking that I suspect few readers will see it coming. Although the book is a bit too long and occasionally heavy-handed and melodramatic, these flaws are offset by the novel's many virtues. Gentlemen & Players is one of the most compelling stories that I have read in quite some time, and I recommend it highly.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 26 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Gentlemen and Players at HarperCollins



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About the Author:

Joanne HarrisJoanne Harris was born in 1964 in Barnsley in the North of England and as a girl lived in her grandparents' candy shop in France. She is the great-granddaughter of a woman known locally as a witch and a healer. Half-French, half-English, she taught French at a school in Northern England. Her novel Chocolat was nominated for the Whitbread Award, one of Britain's most prestigious literary prizes.

Her books are now published in over 40 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. In 2004, Joanne was one of the judges of the Whitbread prize (categories; first novel and overall winner); and in 2005 she was a judge of the Orange prize.

Harris lives in Yorkshire, England with her husband and daughter.
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