three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-GentlemenAndPlayers"To dare, to strive, to conquer" is the motto of St. Oswald’s, an aristocratic British grammar school. Fifteen years after a working-class father served as the school’s caretaker and his son, Snyde, masqueraded as a pupil, Snyde still takes the school’s mantra to heart. An outsider among the upper-class elite, Snyde had fallen in love with a fellow schoolboy and paid a terrible price. Now, more than a decade later, Snyde has a score to settle. Returning to St. Oswald’s as a teacher with a fictitious past, he has an agenda beyond enlightening young minds. Bent on revenge, he starts to destroy the school from within—until old-school Latin teacher, Roy Straitley, is onto him.
William Morrow. 422 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0060559144

Advertiser 4 of 5 Stars
"The posh English grammar school boys rarely rub shoulders with the commoners of nearby Sunnybank Park Comprehensive—until one of them infiltrates their elite ranks. … Harris takes a look at childhood struggles and England’s class wars and writes a cracking good yarn in the process." Tania Bawden

Elle 4 of 5 Stars
"Gentlemen and Players is a world away from the sweetly sentimental Chocolat. … Murder most foul seems inevitable, and Harris’s gift for rich characterization and bone-dry humor turns what could be a conventional mystery into an escapist, elegant read."

Sunday Telegraph 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Harris, who produces something new with every book, has scored another success with this portrayal of a tiny, closed world, building her intriguing plot to a crescendo of violence as Mole’s identity and motive are revealed." Susanna Yager

Sunday Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What we have here is the classic closed society whodunit—a finite group of characters, a place from which none can escape, and the escalation of tension. … Suffice it to say that this reader was nicely fooled, and had to do much flicking back to check what exactly was said a couple of hundred pages earlier." Penelope Lively

Guardian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s quite a complicated plot, with its two narrative perspectives and two time-frames. … It’s a measure of the plot’s cleverness and the skill and care that’s gone into its construction that its highly dubious premise doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as it should." Harry Ritchie

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a lot for one novel to do, and Harris isn’t quite able to force all the pieces into place. … There does not need to be an Aesop-like moral, or even a classic denouement. But there should be something that keeps Harris’s novel fully alive, for half of it is empty." Mario Bruzzone

Spectator 2 of 5 Stars
"Although Harris is adept at portraying the full horror of common room politics (having herself been a teacher of French), her writing lacks the bite and guile needed to pull off the profile of a psychopath like Snyde. … The twist that acts as a denouement is far too fanciful to be believed." Andreas Campomar

Critical Summary

Harris, author of Chocolat (1999), Five Quarters of the Orange (2001), Holy Fools ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2004), and other fiction, has switched genres once again. This time, she’s crafted a school novel as murder mystery. This elegant, class-themed whodunit pans back and forth in time and features two slightly unreliable narrators. While Straitley represents the school’s ethos, Snyde, by contrast, is pure evil—too much so for Harris to portray adequately. The premise, compounded with a shocking final twist, also stretched credibility for some critics. If in the end the pieces don’t all fit together, Gentlemen offers a complex tale of intrigue and revenge.

Further Reading

The Talented Mr. Ripley | Patricia Highsmith (1955): When Herbert Greenleaf hires the young Tom Ripley to retrieve his son, Dickie, from Europe, Tom starts a career as an escort—as well as an impersonator, a thief, and a murderer.