No one will ever accuse Joanne Harris of being stuck in a rut. As far as genres are concerned, the variety of her writing ranges from the sensuous quirkiness of the romance CHOCOLAT to a collection of 120 recipes called MY FRENCH KITCHEN. In fiction, beautiful writing, intriguing characters and imaginative plots are her hallmarks. GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS, her latest novel, is no exception; it is a riveting thriller.
Set at the elite St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, the narrative moves between present day and fifteen years earlier, and is told by two narrators: the long-time professor of Classics, Roy Straitley, and the child of groundskeeper John Snyde. A place of deep-rooted tradition, the boarding school also boasts dark history and its share of unresolved mystery. The two narrators are intimately involved in both.
The start of another academic year brings change to the campus as five new members of the faculty are added. However, it quickly becomes clear as the narrative switches back and forth between the key players --- the steadfast Classics educator and one of the new teachers --- that one of them has nefarious plans that involve the ultimate demise of St. Oswald's. Small incidents evolve into horrific occurrences as time passes and the root of the mystery surfaces. The story unfolds like the chess game Harris references to structure the chapters, with the next moves --- the growing conflict --- dependent as much on what just happened on the board as on what might happen next.
Harris excels at delving into the nature of what makes a person develop into the individual they become later in life. GENTLEMEN & PLAYERS is a study of the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, an open-ended study. She creates a character who desperately wants "to belong," who felt the weight of St. Oswald's "like a physical ache," so much so that the school, the students, the grounds become an unhealthy and eventually sociopathic obsession. Until finally...
Ever read a movie review that gives away the big on-screen plot twist? Or lets slip the blockbuster didn't-see-it-coming finale? Well, I am giving away nothing here. Harris supplies a didn't-see-it-coming, major plot twist and ending that I think will surprise even the most seasoned of veteran readers, in the tradition of PRESUMED INNOCENT or --- if you'll excuse the movie reference --- The Usual Suspects. This is a must-read!
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on December 26, 2006