Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris, is the first book in the author’s Malbry Series. The story is set in and around St Oswald’s, an old and long established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. The timeline moves between the present – when a new cohort of teachers arrive for the start of the academic year – and the years when one of these individuals was a child enacting a daring deception in a bid to reinvent themselves.
The child is nine years old when their tale opens. Living in the school gatehouse – a perk of Father’s job as porter – they are aware that the grounds and school are out of bounds. Nevertheless, they dare to sneak in, thereby discovering that no action will be taken so long as they remain invisible.
The child grows bolder. Keys are taken from Father and the main building breached. Over time the old building’s layout, the school timetable, and many of the teachers become familiar. The child covets the privilege of the wealthy pupils in their rarefied existence.
The child’s mother left her little family and does not maintain contact. Father is a drunk who at times grows violent. Being small in stature and lacking sporting prowess, the child is a victim of bullies at the local state schools attended. To escape this misery, a St Oswald’s uniform is pilfered and – renamed as Julian – the child starts to blend in occasionally as a pupil. A friendship is formed with another misfit. Leon and Julian delight in breaking rules within school and in the town when freed.
In the present day, the new teachers are observed by Roy Straitley – a Latin master nearing retirement who attended St Oswald’s as a boy and has worked there for more than thirty years. During this time scandals have been weathered – including improprieties and tragedies. Now Straitley is resisting changes being enforced as the new head attempts to modernise. Straitley’s caustic wit and underlying humanity make him a valuable character in portraying what a school can be.
“The reality is the stone; the tradition; the permanence of St Oswald’s. Staff come, staff go. Sometimes they die. Sometimes even boys die; but St Oswald’s endures, and as I have grown older I have taken increasing comfort from this.”
Now an adult in the guise of one of the new teachers, the child has returned seeking revenge. Plot development gradually explains what happened back in the day and why they wish to bring St Oswald’s to its knees. From the opening line the reader knows that, in this teacher’s opinion, ‘murder is really no big deal.’ The illicit St Oswald’s boy who remained invisible seeks both retribution and to finally be seen.
It took me some time to differentiate between voices – to work out, chapter by chapter, from whose perspective the narrative was being written. The many teachers and pupils introduced need to be remembered if threads are to be followed and understood. Although not difficult, this required a degree of concentration and occasional rereading.
Knowing that the author was once a teacher adds to the humour of many staff room observations. I enjoyed her comment to colleagues in the acknowledgements:
“any of you who may fear to meet yourselves in the pages of this book, rest assured: you’re not there”
Her characters are expertly drawn and recognisable as those who have haunted the corridors of every British school I have experienced as pupil and parent. Perhaps these didn’t all harbour a murderer but jealousies and resentments amongst both staff and pupils run as deep as depicted. The tension and mystery are tightly woven around more poignant revelations. The denouement is chilling but retains enough heart to leave the reader content.
Although perhaps not as well known as some of the author’s other works, the Malbry series is a personal favourite. The variety of characters along with the fine balance between dry humour and compelling thriller make for an enjoyable read.
Gentlemen & Players is published by Black Swan.