For want of an old school tie?

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.

0 thoughts on “For want of an old school tie?

  1. LizF says:

    I am ashamed to say that I have had this book since it came out in hardback but still haven’t read it although I should have since Joanne Harris was my nephew’s French teacher for a year at a local highly regarded private school and rumours abounded that St Oswald’s was based on it! (No personal knowledge as my four have all gone through the state system, which is very good locally!)
    I will however be retrieving it from its shelf and putting it on the TBR pile as soon as I get home from work tonight!

    • gaskella says:

      I love school and college settings for books. Teachers make great characters – probably because we can all identify them in those who’ve taught us. Another book set in a school that I loved was ‘Old School’ by Tobias Wolff.

  2. Teresa says:

    I listened to this on audio a couple of years ago (read by Derek Jacobi!) enjoyed it a fair bit. The thing that killed me was how well Harris pulled off the twist in the story. I actually saw it coming and didn’t think it would work at all, but it did.

  3. Steph says:

    I read this one a few years ago, and it was actually my first Joanne Harris novel. I LOVED it! I thought it was such a clever, twisted thriller that was never predictable and had ample shocks for any reader. I thought it was deliciously dark and also loved the academic bent to the humor… I’m sad this was such a departure for Harris because clearly the genre suits her very well indeed!

    • gaskella says:

      Her new book is another different type of thriller – Blue Eyed Boy – but told through emails etc. Haven’t read it yet, but the buzz says it’s not her best, rather more edgy/contemporary than most expected I think.

    • gaskella says:

      I’ve yet to get to Blueeyedboy, but I can say I’ve enjoyed all the books I’ve read so far by her. This was brilliant, so was Five Quarters of the Orange – a wartime story – I’d recommend either of these as a good place to start, especially if you’re not attracted by Chocolat.

  4. savidgereads says:

    I have had this on the TBR for ages and when blueeyedboy popped through the post I swore I would read this one first as her latest is in the same village apparently. So I must pick it up very very soon, I like it when you feel really clever and then the author pulls the rug.

  5. Jenny says:

    I hated Chocolat (the book, not the film), but really enjoyed Gentlemen and Players. Ever since then I’ve been at a loss about whether to read more books by Joanne Harris. I am kind of in the mood for books with classics and murder, so I might do a reread of this one.

    • gaskella says:

      Chocolat wasn’t my favourite of hers either. I did really enjoy Five Quarters of the Orange which is a wartime story set in occupied France – that was an excellent read.

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