Audere, agere, auferre.
To dare, to strive, to conquer
For generations, privileged young men attended private schools like St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, groomed for greatness and success. But this year the winds have turned, not only are suits, paperwork, and information technology threating to overwhelm the school and break the traditions of this elite school but someone is trying to corrupt and destroy St. Oswalds once and for all; this is a game for Gentlemen and Players.
Nothing like a gentlemen’s game of revenue and murder, Joanne Harris’ novel is astonishing and surprising. I normally associate Joanne Harris with the likes of Chocolat, but when I heard she had written this dark psychological thriller, I had to read it right away. This is a game of idealism verses cynicism, equality verses privilege and principle verses corruption; this is a game of chess. I love how Harris wrote this whole sociopathic revenge novel using the themes of Chess. You have the black pawn moving silently trying to take down the white king.
Roy Straitley is one of the narrators of this story, an unmarried classics master that tells us about life at St. Oswald’s, focusing on the day to day events, with the students and his work colleagues. Most importantly are The New Head (the king and only referred to as the new head even though he has been doing the job for 15 years), Pat Bishop (second master), Jeff Light (games Master), Chris Keane (new English Teacher) and Dianne Dare (also a new teacher in the French department). Straitley doesn’t know it yet but he is considered to be the white knight of this novel and the second narrative; the black pawn keeps their identity hidden till the very end (although if you are a keen chess player you might work it out in this review) and tells the story of early life at St Oswalds and their plans to destroy this school.
I love how Joanne Harris wrote this book with the chess metaphor, but she used a couple of tricks to throw off who might be the sociopath. Not that I really have a problem with it, I had my suspicions of who it might have been and her cheap tricks really threw me off at times. There is some interesting name choices used in the book; like Bishop, and Light sounds a little like Knight, and these were just ways to help build this metaphor.
While the reader will largely focus on working out just who is the person seeking revenge on St. Oswalds, this book also deals with entitlement and elitism. We know from near the start that the black pawn was poor and their father was the janitor so we know that the pawn holds so much hostility towards the rich and elite. So we know that we are dealing with the problem of not fitting in and being excluded. There are also elements of adolescent sexuality, gossip and tradition verse progress that are very clear throughout this book.
This is a wickedly dark thriller that had me gripped from the very start, it had a real serial killer vibe to it when the black pawn took moves to strategically destroy this school and then you have this very proper and traditional account of life in an elite school. Naturally this narrative changes as the white knight slowly starts to understand there is imminent danger at his beloved school.
While really entertaining and tricky, Joanne Harris also reminds us just how much lives depend on trust. This unsettling strategy to slowly plant seeds of doubt and suspicion could be futile. I found Gentlemen and Players to be a smart and witty psychological thriller; I never expected something so bleak to come from someone that wrote something as sweet as Chocolat. I’m reminded a little of The Talented Mr. Ripley when I read through this novel, sometimes I was surprised that Harris was able to outclass and fool me.