Gentlemen and Players
I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.
If you’ve ever known a schoolteacher, you know that there are no turf wars more vicious or bloody than those that go on behind the scenes in schools. My dad was a teacher, and he liked to say “The smaller the stakes, the bigger the fights.” On the one hand, what could be smaller than whose mug goes where, or who gets how much chalk? And let’s not even talk about parking spaces. On the other, what could be more important than molding a young mind? Think of your own favorite teacher, or your least favorite. Other than your parents, who had more influence on your own young mind?
Gentlemen and Players is a certain kind of mystery novel, sort of old-fashioned in an Agatha Christie way. It takes place in a grand old English school for boys, St. Oswald’s, where everyone seems to have a Dark Secret and no one is what they seem. It’s a place for boys whose parents have money and influence, and the competition among the upper class grammar school is increasing. The most important thing at St. Oswald’s is the school itself, and we quickly learn that anything unpleasant is soon swept under the rug. Dark secrets are fine as long as they remain secret and don’t affect the reputation of beloved St. Oswald’s. But not everyone loves Oswald. Harris has set this book up in an interesting way we hear immediately and directly from the young villain: the very first sentence is “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 15 years, it’s this that murder is really no big deal.” So we know we’re dealing with a charming psychopath. Our villain has set the task of dismantling St. Oswald’s, destroying it from within with rumor and scandal and a couple of murders. But why the hate? And how to infiltrate the closed confines of this upper class school? In Gentlemen and Players, the villain only speaks to us in the first person, and we realize it could be almost any teacher on campus a nice long list of eccentrics, backstabbers and outright nuts, all jockeying for position. It starts simply with the theft of a pen, and by the time the place is crashing down around them, the teachers are too busy trying to keep their own noses clean to realize how deep the trouble is.
With the exception of the venerable old Latin teacher, the villain’s arch enemy and rival, and the cranky old voice of reason at the school. Just don’t touch his mug! He is the other voice we hear, and putting the pieces of this mystery together alongside him is a challenging treat. Detective work is just one of the pleasures of this book. Harris takes us to world I certainly have never been to an English boys’ grammar school. It took me a minute to figure out what forms, kits and trainers were, and who the Head is, but that just made it slightly exotic.
I had several suspects and was wrong each time. When the big reveal comes, I found it plausible and surprising. And better yet, I found it satisfying. This would be the perfect mystery for a night by the fire with a glass of sherry.
The book is Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.
Want to talk about books? Email me at kim dot alexander at xmradio dot com. This is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.