Summary and book reviews of Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

Gentlemen and Players

A Novel

by Joanne Harris

Gentlemen and Players
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 432 pages
    Jan 2007, 448 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

A murder-mystery set in an exclusive English boarding school, where somebody's dark past may lead to the school's destruction.

Audere, agere, auferre.
To dare, to strive, to conquer.

For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, groomed for success by the likes of Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years. But this year the wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork, and information technology are beginning to overshadow St. Oswald's tradition, and Straitley is finally, and reluctantly, contemplating retirement. He is joined this term by five new faculty members, including one who -- unbeknownst to Straitley and everyone else -- holds intimate and dangerous knowledge of St. Oswald's ways and secrets. Harboring dark ties to the school's past, this young teacher has arrived with one terrible goal: to destroy St. Oswald's.

As the new term gets under way, a number of incidents befall students and faculty alike. Beginning as small annoyances -- a lost pen, a misplaced coffee mug -- they are initially overlooked. But as the incidents escalate in both number and consequence, it soon becomes apparent that a darker undercurrent is stirring within the school. With St. Oswald's unraveling, only Straitley stands in the way of its ruin. The veteran teacher faces a formidable opponent, however -- a master player with a bitter grudge and a strategy that has been meticulously planned to the final move, a secret game with very real, very deadly consequences.

A harrowing tale of cat and mouse, this riveting, hypnotically atmospheric novel showcases New York Times bestselling author Joanne Harris's astonishing storytelling talent as never before.

Chapter One

If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal. It's just a boundary, meaningless and arbitrary as all others -- a line drawn in the dirt. Like the giant no trespassers sign on the drive to St. Oswald's, straddling the air like a sentinel. I was nine years old at the time of our first encounter, and it loomed over me then with the growling menace of a school bully.

no trespassers
no unauthorized entry beyond this point by order

Another child might have been daunted by the command. But in my case curiosity overrode the instinct. By whose order? Why this point and not another? And most importantly, what would happen if I crossed that line?

Of course I already knew the school was out of bounds. By then I'd been living in its shadow for six months, and already that tenet stood tall among the commandments of my young life, as laid down by John Snyde. Don't be a sissy. Look ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discussion Questions:
  1. The favorite book of the young Snyde is The Invisible Man. Poe's law is also quoted: “The object that is hidden in plain sight remains unseen longest.” Through childhood and into adulthood, how does Snyde, in fact, become invisible?

  2. Early in the novel, young Snyde says, "I felt cheated, as I often did when faced with the threat and assurances of the adult world, which promises so much and delivers so little." What does this say about the character? Give some examples of ways in which the adult world has cheated Snyde. Which do you feel has the longest lasting impact on Snyde as an adolescent? As an adult?

  3. Throughout the novel, Snyde remembers days as a student in Sunnybank Park—and the...
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BookBrowse Review


At its heart, with its finite cast of characters from which we know the villain and the victims must come, Gentlemen and Players is a classic "country house" whodunit . However, it is also a deliciously complicated literary thriller set in two time periods with three narrative perspectives, which also serves as a fine cautionary tale. Harris, who hates to be typecast, has done it again - she's taken the risk of changing genres and carried it off in style!   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

A daring gambit, poorly played.

Publisher's Weekly

This is verbal magic of the highest order, the kind every author deserves but doesn't always get.

Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson

Harris combines the conventions of the academic novel - its vicious politicking and rich dynamics - with the taut suspense of a thriller

The Washington Post

Beyond the book's considerable entertainment value, Harris has written an unsettling reminder of how much our orderly lives depend on a fragile level of trust.

Daily News

With Gentlemen & Players Harris has tapped an unsuspected talent for writing sophisticated, absorbing suspense.

Library Journal

Intelligent, compelling, technically well crafted, and entertaining, it is highly recommended.

The Guardian (UK) - Harry Ritchie

As with Heller's novel (Notes on a Scandal), the daft errors and silly names in Gentlemen & Players serve only to highlight a basic unbelievability. Would a child really go to the lengths of impersonation required by this plot? Would that child really grow up to execute such gory revenge? Well, no, but then there wouldn't be a story, would there? 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. Book groups of the world, watch out.

The Independent (UK) - Christian House

Harris knows her subject and the novel fits into its genre exceedingly well. Roy is a contemporary take on the redundant Classics tutor from Terrence Rattigan's The Browning Version and all the class-bound malice has the flavour of Stephen Fry's prep-based fiction. But ultimately, Harris has taken what Benjamin Disraeli termed "the microcosm of a public school" and slotted her own romantic teachings into the curriculum to produce a wildly entertaining lesson on the twin perils of envy and elitism.

The London Times - Penelope Lively

The prime requirement of what the Americans call "mystery writing" is that it should be convincingly embedded; Gentlemen & Players comes rooted in a persuasive world of recalcitrant boys, warring teachers, Latin tags and health and safety requirements. If its author did indeed once do a stint in front of the blackboard, it has stood her in good stead — or enabled her to take a subtle revenge.

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Beyond the Book

The English School System
Established in medieval times, the original purpose of grammar schools was to educate select members of the young in the grammar of Latin and other useful topics.

In 1944 England established a tripartite education system which placed grammar schools at the top of the heap. Less gifted children (as defined by those who failed an entrance exam at the age of eleven) attended either secondary modern schools or technical schools. In the 1960s the Labour government tried to do away with the grammar school system by introducing comprehensive schools which taught all ability levels.

In response, some grammar schools moved to a fee paying system but retained their "grammar school" designation, and some ...

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