In Gentlemen and Players, chess has never been so fraught with deception, mayhem, and murder. It is a game of course, a battle of wills, and Roy Straitley, the persnickety classics teacher at St. Oswald's School for Boys, knows this better than anyone. Fast approaching retirement and one the longest serving staff members, Roy believes that he has finally earned a certain amount of deference within the school's hierarchy.
St. Oswald's, however, is rapidly changing. The new staff is more concerned with introducing computer technology and innovation than bothering to accommodate a teacher like Straitley and his era of gowns, tweed jackets, and Latin phrases rapidly becoming a thing of the past. This man, who doesn't even bother with an email address, is rapidly being relegated to a dusty corner of the New Languages section, "like a rather dull first edition no one dares to throw away."
A master of all things, Straitley has prided himself on keeping the St. Oswald's boys in order. But now the school is under attack, and not even he can figure out who is plotting to destroy it. There is a mole in their midst, spreading allegations of racial bias, placing damaging stories of anti-Semitism in the local paper, and instigating rumors of pedophilia. Soon the incidences begin to escalate: an allergic boy almost dies of anaphylactic shock after a peanut is placed in his Fanta; items vanish - a valuable pen, and a credit card; and a teacher's diary is suspiciously misplaced.
Roy Straitley is initially blamed, a "worn cog from an outdated mechanism that now serves no useful purpose," and there is no one better to censure. But suspicion soon turns to other staff. No one is as they seem to appear. The perpetrator remains a mystery, an interloper playing on St. Oswald's stupidity and arrogance, certain that no one will ever cross the line to discover his identity.
Perhaps the events are somehow connected to the twelve-year-old who calls himself Julian Pinchbeck, son of John Snyde, the caretaker at the school's gatehouse, who thirteen years ago masqueraded as a pupil at St. Oswald's. Relegated to the poor Abby Road Juniors with its shabby and run-down atmosphere and, later, to the even worse Sunnybank Park, he eyes the hallowed halls of St. Oswald's with a mixture of class envy and jealous rage, desperately wanting to belong.
Courageous enough to go beyond the "no trespass," signs, Julian steals a uniform and infiltrates St. Oswald's, attending classes and snooping around in prohibited rooms after hours. He eventually meets Leon, a wealthy and lanky rebel from a good family and with a penchant for shoplifting. Love soon blossoms, for Leon represents everything Pinchbeck wants to be – cool and calculating, a self-admitted snob, an undeniable product of his upper-class background.
Author Joanne Harris cleverly sweeps between the past and the present, steadily unfolding this intricate narrative and peppering her story with many subtle clues to the true of identity of Julian, the final revelation coming as much of a shock to the reader as it does to Roy Straitley. Julian Pinchbeck is indeed the personification of smoke and mirrors, the epitome of a "ghost boy," his young face frozen in time: a ghost who "dissolved like the night mists when morning came." Now he is determined to expose the corruption lying beneath the fragile sheen of this school, a school that he so desperately hates.
The characters are eclectic, each voice – the staff, the students, and even the parents - blending into a chorus of anger, suspicion, confusion, and despair. Ironically, it is left up to the snappish and petulant Straitley, wedded to St. Oswald's, to ultimately discover the true identity of the impostor.
The climate at St Oswald's is rife with superstitions, misjudgments, careless conclusions and dangerous assumptions, the rituals and traditions that keep the old wheels of the school creaking away gradually collapsing. The rules have been held in place by the precarious fabric of bluff and complacency, and the perpetrator proving that any rule can be broken and that trespass, like any crime, can go unpunished when there is no one around who can see it.