I really enjoyed this book. I am a Joanne Harris fan I must admit, but if you are immediately thinking Chocolat then I need to tell you that this is so very different to her earlier works. It is a gripping mystery and thriller that demonstrates Harris’ skill with writing a tale in any genre; to create believable characters; and perhaps most importantly, to tell a story that you want to finish. In some ways, this is a clichéd private school story, albeit without the boarding aspect. The boys are hormonal and troubled, the hallways ancient and hallowed, the teachers old-fashioned and perpetually flawed. But it doesn’t feel clichéd and in fact feels fresh and believable.
I really enjoyed the story that is revealed, piece by piece, by two narrators. One is immediately obvious to be one of the teachers, Roy Straitley, who was also a student at the school. It feels like an old worlde school, but its Yorkshire setting and links to the small town where it is located create a sense that this could be any school, in any English town. Straitley is the Latin Master, a subject that is dying as quickly as his old school traditions. When the new headmaster shows arrives to modernise the school, the “new broom”, he is revealed to be none other than a troubled adolescent that Straitley taught briefly some decades prior. In short, there is history between the two and there are unresolved scores to settle.
The second narrator is more difficult to work out. He is troubled, but in a more deviant and troubling way than Straitley. It is clear that he knows both the teachers and the headmaster as a boy. Again, enforcing the “old scores to settle” aspect. And at that same time infusing a dollop of mystery. That the headmaster returns to the dusty old halls full of things he would rather forget is at first difficult to understand, but it turns our he may have the biggest score to settle.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. There is scandal, murder, and inappropriate dalliances between teachers and students that contribute to the intrigue and convoluted tale that emerges. As with all mysteries, part of the enjoyment lies within the reader’s ability to solve the puzzle themselves. But a critical component of that is caring about the characters and the story enough to want to keep reading. This book is successful on both accounts.