Joanne Harris is not exactly a new author to me, I've heard of her, seen the film Chocolat etc. but not read any of her books. Why? I'm not sure really. I liked the movie of Chocolat well enough, just didn't feel inspired to rush out and read the book or any of the other food inspired books by the same author, set in France. So why, when I spotted Gentlemen and Players in a charity shop, did I decide to buy it? Well, it sounded different to her usual fare and I was intrigued - it was as simple as that really.
It's quite a difficult book to describe without giving away spoilers. The setting is a small English public school for boys known as St. Oswalds. There are two first person narrators and two timelines. The first timeline begins as the school gets a new caretaker who takes up residence in the lodge with his only child, nine years old, and known to us as 'Snyde'. Snyde begins to explore the lodge's surroundings and, eventually, to trepass in the school grounds and then gets to know the inside of the school like the back of his hand. Unhappily attending a local comprehensive, it eventually becomes Snyde's dream and obsession to attend St. Oswalds. A uniform is stolen, and with a thorough knowledge of the school to help, Snyde slowly but surely becomes a St. Oswald's boy by bunking off school or going sick at various times. It's when Snyde, aged eleven, meets Leon Mitchell in the corridors of St. Oswalds that things take a more sinister turn. Leon is a couple of years older, much more worldy-wise, a beautiful boy in fact. Snyde falls hopelessly in love.
The second timeline, woven in with the first, is fifteen years later. We're told that Snyde has joined the staff of St. Oswalds but there are four or five new members of staff this September and we're not told which Snyde is. Something terrible happened fifteen years ago and Snyde, in disguise with a new identity, is out for revenge. We meet many of the members of staff that were familiar to Snyde back then, in particular Roy Straitly, close to retirement, head of classics, but sensing that Latin is now a subject looked upon as old-fashioned by the rest of the staff and that his head-master is trying to pension him off. Slowly but surely things start to go wrong at the school. Articles go missing, computers get viruses and show images they shouldn't and then a boy, allergic to peanuts, nearly dies when a peanut is dropped into his can of fizzy drink. He's one of Roy Straitly's 'boys', as was a certain Leon Mitchell, and Roy is very protective of his class members and remembers each and every one he's taught. Something is very wrong at St. Oswalds and eventually it dawns on Roy that someone is trying to bring the school down. But who?
Pageturner. Pure and simple. Absolutely unputdownable. Read it.
I suppose I should say more. ;-) I didn't know I had a taste for this kind of psychological crime yarn. It was like watching a train crash in slow motion as the author slowly reveals a bit more and a bit more and you get more and more involved with the characters and their motives. There's a huge secret which I partly cottoned onto about halfway through but not the 'whys' or the 'wherefores' and my enjoyment wasn't spoilt at all by that. Harris creates a wonderfully insular setting. You can almost feel St. Oswalds, smell it, know it, love it as Snyde did. The school is really a third main character and because of that you can almost understand and empathise with what Snyde does. I'm not a serious crime reader in any way, shape, or fashion so this must have been a bit special to hook me the way it did. It was. Read it.