I haven’t read very much by Joanne Harris, one novel (before my blogging days) and half a book of short stories (really must get round to finishing that one day – if only I could remember exactly where I put it). I’m not even sure why I bought this one; must have been a review somewhere that caught my eye because buy it I did, and it has languished on the tbr pile for ages, until I spied it last week when looking for something a little different to read.

So Gentlemen and Players is set in a boys’ grammar school somewhere in England (I think it’s meant to be in the north but that wasn’t entirely clear). It’s the start of a new term and that brings all sorts of rivalries among the teaching staff to the forefront as timetables are changed, rooms re-allocated and the pecking order re-established. We see St Oswald’s partly through the eyes of one of the teachers, Roy Straitley, who has been at the school since the year dot and is fighting against inevitable retirement. We also see the school through the eyes of an unknown narrator, one of the new teachers but we’re not sure which one, a person with a real grudge against the school and everyone in it, and who has come back to take revenge. That story is told as a mixture of reminiscence and present day plotting, and what plotting there is!

This is a gloriously nasty book, and I mean that as a compliment. The unknown protagonist has thought things through very clearly and has a plan which, while it may need to modified as circumstances dictate, is designed to totally  destroy St Oswald’s. There is scandal and murder and spite and I thought it was fantastic. At one point in the novel I thought  “I wonder…” and as I was proved right I felt real satisfaction; for once getting slightly ahead of the author was a joy and not a disappointment as the outcome was as I predicted and just added to the fun (if you can refer to fun in a book where very horrible things happen to people who often don’t deserve them); very satisfying.

This was a slow starter for me but a few chapters in when I realised exactly where this might be going I just couldn’t stop reading, and even broke my rule of not reading too late on a work night, sitting up in bed until I had finished it. One of the quotes on the back of my paperback copy referred to this as “wickedly fun” and I’m not sure I can better that description.

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