Different Class by Joanne Harris is a psychological thriller which left me guessing, almost to the very end of the book.
The story is set in St Oswalds Grammar, a boys school in Mawbry, a fictional town in England. Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen & Players and Blueeyedboy are also set in Mawbry and share some characters, although Different Class can be read alone.
The story is alternately told by two narrators, whose chapters are represented by a white or a black chess king. The white king’s chapters are told by an elderly Latin teacher, Roy Straitley, who has taught at St Oswalds for over thirty years. Mr Straitley is a traditionalist, who has few interests outside of the school. He is passionate about St Oswalds, teaching and his form, who are known as his ‘Brodie Boys’.
The black king is more of an unknown quality. I didn’t know who he was almost until the end of the book, despite guessing at his identity throughout. The black king was a former pupil at St Oswalds and is clearly troubled, with a history of killing animals and possibly even other children.
The story swings back and forth in time between when the black king was a student of Mr Straitley’s during the 1980’s, and the present, where St Oswalds is undergoing huge changes to try to stay relevant and, more importantly, to remain financially solvent. An old student of Mr Straitley’s, Johnny Harrington, has recently become the Head Master, much to Mr Straitley’s dismay, and the school’s old traditions are being cast aside willy-nilly.
The black king becomes more and more dangerous as the book continues through time until the present, with the anticipation building as the black king’s state of mental health becomes more unsettled. A former English Master’s death, after having been jailed for twenty years after being found guilty of sexually abusing a student at St Oswalds, sets the drama in motion.
I read Different Class over a few days, and there was a patch in the second half of the book where I felt as if I couldn’t put the book down. I have enjoyed most of Joanne Harris’s books, some more than others, but I rate Different Class as a favourite and Roy Straitley as a favourite character.