Gentlemen and Players
is a contemporary thriller novel by Joanne Harris. First published in 2005 and nominated for the 2007 Edgar Award, Gentlemen and Players
follows a narrator determined to destroy a privileged private school. Harris is typically associated with romance novels, although she writes across numerous genres including history, magical realism
, mystery, and nonfiction. She helps develop television dramas, novellas, and musical theatre projects, and some of her own novels are now feature films. In 2013, the Queen awarded her an MBE.Gentlemen and Players
takes place in a fictitious grammar school for boys called St. Oswald’s. Located in Northern England and steeped in tradition, St. Oswald’s attracts some of the most privileged and rich families in the country. Parents know that it’s not easy to get accepted to St. Oswald’s, and most of the places go to students with a long family history of attending the school.
There are two primary narrators in Gentlemen and Players
. The first is Roy Straitley. Roy’s taught at St. Oswald’s for many years. This year marks his 100th academic term with the school, and he’s determined to make it his best semester yet. The school Latin master, Roy knows that he’s not the most popular of teachers and that his subject confuses many of the boys, but he’s devoted to his students and he only wants the best for them.
The second narrator is a new teacher arriving at St. Oswald’s. He’s one of five new starts and he goes under an alias. If anyone discovers his real name, they’ll know he despises St. Oswald’s and that he plans on causing trouble. Julian isn’t there to make friends and help the students—he’s there to destroy St. Oswald’s from the inside.
When the book opens, Roy meets with the headmaster. The headmaster makes it clear that there will be some changes around the school. There will be new computers, more IT classes, and less emphasis on classical subjects. Modern languages, the headmaster explains, are more important these days. Roy vows to himself that he’s retiring at the year’s end because he’s a luddite and he despises the move towards technology.
At first, school life proceeds as usual for Roy. However, it’s not long before strange things happen. At first the incidents are minor. Roy loses his class register and he never finds it again. This is extraordinary because Roy’s never misplaced his register. When his coffee mug goes missing, he believes this is more proof he’s losing his touch and should retire soon.
It’s not just Roy who experiences odd happenings. Boys complain about valuables going missing. One student, a Jewish boy, loses a very expensive fountain pen and his mother accuses the school of anti-Semitism. Roy’s horrified because he loves his students and he fears for the school’s future.
Meanwhile, the other teachers suffer, too. Pat Bishop, an unmarried teacher who secretly sleeps with his secretary, arrives one morning to discover that everyone knows his secret. He’s also accused of downloading child pornography because the downloads are linked to his credit card. Although Pat’s later cleared of the accusations, he can’t recover his reputation. Roy suspects that someone’s toying with St. Oswald’s, and he wants to know why.
In the meantime, the students cause their own share of mischief. A teacher’s sacked because a student says he’s sleeping with a young girl. It’s a false accusation, and the boy only made it because the teacher threatened to punish him for truancy. However, in the interests of appearances, St. Oswald’s fires him anyway. The whole school’s falling apart.
Finally, we learn more about our mysterious second narrator. The narrator calls himself Julian Pinchbeck and it’s unclear what his real name is. We discover that Julian’s father is the old groundskeeper at St. Oswald’s. He couldn’t afford to send Julian to the private school, and so Julian grew up bitter and resentful, surrounded by what he couldn’t have.
One day, Julian decided to infiltrate the school. He posed as a student and went unnoticed. He eventually fell in love with another student called Leon, who instead fell for a girl called Francesca. Julian can’t handle the rejection and refuses to leave Leon alone. His father has no idea he’s hanging around the school like this.
Leon admits he’s bisexual and comes on to Julian. However, he loses his nerve and pulls away. Julian isn’t happy. They fight and Leon falls to his death. Julian’s father commits suicide because he feels responsible for a child dying on his grounds. It’s at this point we discover the ultimate truth—Julian isn’t a boy at all, but a girl called Julia.
Julia posed as a boy to access the school. Now she’s back, and she wants revenge for how the school treated her after her father’s suicide. She’s posing as a new teacher, Diane Dare. When another teacher, Keane, finds her out, she stabs him before he can ruin her. Roy discovers the horrible truth about Diane and calls for help. Before the authorities arrive, Diane flees the scene and she’s never seen again. Keane dies and the school may never recover from the tragedies.