Different Class (2016): Joanne Harris


The Malbry Novels: Book 3

At one point in this novel, a character comments that nothing ever happens in Malbry. I can only assume they were being ironic, or haven’t been paying attention, because this Yorkshire village has recently played host to intrigue, murders, scams and full-on psychopathy. We return to the world of Gentlemen & Players and blueeyedboy for a third time, slipping back within the walls of St Oswald’s School and back into the company of the tweedy Latin master Roy Straitley. It’s the year after the events in Gentlemen & Players and the school is still struggling to recover, with a new Head taking over the reins in an attempt to bring the school into the modern era and to brush off unpleasant associations. Many of the new initiatives are anathema to Straitley, but it isn’t just the corporate-speak of the modern education system that makes him feel threatened. For Straitley recognises the new Head – a man who was a boy at St Oswald’s thirty years ago, at another time of scandal and misfortune – and senses that all is not well. It clearly isn’t accidental that Johnny Harrington is back; but what’s his plan?

I was happy to revisit St Oswald’s, because I missed its dusty charm during blueeyedboy. Part of the appeal of Gentlemen & Players was the school setting, a kind of cross between a Patricia Highsmith thriller and The History Boys; and part of the school charm was provided by Roy Straitley. The kind of bluff, old-fashioned master (never ‘teacher’) who doggedly carries on wearing his academic gown even though no one else does, and who looks askance at women even joining the teaching staff, Straitley is a relic of another world. He has managed to survive because St Oswald’s is his universe – there is nothing for him beyond the school (and perhaps the local pub, where masters and Sixth Formers discreetly ignore one another while having quiet pints). Only in recent years has the modern world started to penetrate St Oswald’s: there were the first rumblings of change in Gentlemen & Players, and now things are much, much worse. For, when a ‘super-head’ like Johnny Harrington swoops in to save a school, their first act is to make their presence felt through obvious change. Straitley loathes the glossy photos that go up in the corridor, replacing the Honours Boards, the excruciating new mottos and the push to embrace modern technology; but more alarming than any of these is the possibility that St Oswald’s might do the unthinkable: admit girls (if only on an exchange basis from the local sister school, for certain classes).

While Straitley frets about his comfort zone being eroded, he’s troubled by memories of the last time he saw Johnny Harrington. The boy started in the third form, transferred from somewhere else, on the same day as two other lads. Forming a trinity, this group of boys never fitted in, never adopted the cheerful, mischievous spirit that Straitley loves so much in his favourite pupils. Not only were these boys unsympathetic, they were also at the heart of a shocking accusation against one of Straitley’s fellow teachers, which still haunts him – mainly because Straitley can’t help feeling that he failed at a time when a friend really needed him. Was there truth behind the accusation against Harry Clarke? And, if not, then who else was involved in those tumultuous days back in 1981, which left a boy dead and whose evil consequences are still quietly, subtly unfurling in the present day? Straitley decides he has to find out the truth, if not for himself then for Harry – but how is a bumbling technophobe supposed to dig up information about the past – or investigate the credentials of a hated headmaster? Fortunately, Straitley is in luck, because a familiar face is on hand to give him a bit of help.

There is a dual narration, half from Straitley’s point of view and half through diary entries made by his unknown nemesis, the dark intelligence behind the earlier attacks on Harry Clarke. The same narrative device was used in Gentlemen & Players and works very effectively, because the diarist remains an enigma (it’s a fine example of how to write a first-person narrative while still controlling what the reader knows). Readers of the previous books will know that Harris has a habit of creating protagonists whom we grow to know enormously well, before wrong-footing us with the sudden realisation that we’ve been barking up entirely the wrong tree. In fact, this is such a habit that it can spoil things. I found I actively resisted the hints that the narrative threw out, oh so temptingly, because I just assumed our mysterious diarist wouldn’t turn out to be the obvious person. Was I right? Can’t say. There’s such a thing as a double bluff, after all. But, as I’ve said before, you read differently when you expect there to be a twist. You can’t relax into the world, because you’re too busy suspecting the author, and I find that this impairs my enjoyment. This was a particular problem in Blueeyedboy, where Harris piled misdirection upon misdirection, and I felt manipulated rather than entertained. (It’s useful to read that as well as Gentlemen & Players before starting on Different Class. There are some crossover characters. And it seems that this book runs concurrently with blueeyedboy.)

How does this stand up against the others? Well, to my mind it isn’t as good as Gentlemen & Players. To some extent it’s doing the same thing: St Oswald’s is under threat, without realising it, from a mysterious person who wants to bring the school to its knees. We don’t know who the person is, and so we can only follow Roy Straitley as he struggles to put two and two together, hoping he’s in time to avert whatever evil is due. Straitley continues to be delightfully real and rounded as a character, and I was pleased to see some of his colleagues get slightly larger roles in this installment – Dr Devine turns out to be a good egg in the end. Harris is excellent at reproducing the tiny feuds and rivalries of the staffroom, as well as underlining the vital importance of warmth, compassion and humour in making a good teacher. I’m sure we would all have been better for a Straitley in our schooldays. But I do wonder whether Malbry’s potential has now been exhausted. Admittedly Colin Dexter produced masses of books about Morse tackling murders in a relatively small town, but Oxford is not Malbry – it has a plausible amount of people passing through on a regular basis – and Oxford’s cases are just murders, whereas Malbry seems to be home to hordes of murders, fantasists, missing children, arsonists, abuse scandals and other problematic cases. While Gentlemen & Players kept things on a relatively small scale, Different Class is similar to blueeyedboy in ramping up the drama – it’s fun, of course, but risks going just that bit too far.

One thing remains true: you know that you’re in safe hands with a Harris novel, and this is well-written and engaging, for all the excess of its intricate plot. I enjoyed it as a diversion, but it probably won’t have a permanent place on shelves; and I’m not sure I’ll actively seek out further books set in Malbry – although I do have a soft spot for Straitley.

What does everyone else feel about how this series progresses? Do you feel that Harris is over-egging the pudding just a bit too much? Or do you think it should all be taken tongue-in-cheek, with all the drama of a London thriller series compressed into a modest Yorkshire village? Share your thoughts!

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