Times are changing at St Oswald’s school for boys. It’s 2005 and the school is in decline. A crisis team has been recruited to turn things around. They’ve replaced the old honour boards with shiny new banners depicting smiling students, political correctness has been taken to such an extreme that victims are being made to apologise to their bullies, sixth form Mulberry girls have admitted into certain classes, students are now ‘customers’ and all written communications must now be made via email: St Oswald’s is going paper-free.
Veteran Latin master, Roy Straitley, is resisting these new developments with all his might. And it certainly doesn’t help that the new Head is one of his former students—a student he never liked.
As the school begins to modernise around him, Straitley reflects on certain sinister events that occurred when the new Head was one of his pupils and sees a disturbing pattern emerging.
Different Class (Doubleday, 2016) is a story of deception, prejudice and the abuse of power as it occurs both in institutions and the world at large. It’s also a cracking good mystery, rife with suspense and unexpected twists. Longtime fans of Harris will recognise Different Class as the third novel in her trilogy set in the fictional town of Malbry. However, like the preceding titles in the series, Gentlemen and Players (2005) and Blueeyedboy (2010), it can be read as a stand alone book.
I adore a good campus crime novel, and Different Class was no exception. I particularly liked that the student characters were just as important as the masters, which is surprisingly rare. In fact, the story is shared between two narrators: Straitley and his former student, ‘Ziggy’, whose sections are written in the form of letters to another friend, ‘Mousey’. The narrative also moves between 2005 and 1981, when Ziggy was one of Straitley’s students.
A third of the way into the story Straitley notes:
A term at St Oswald’s, like a good book, takes some time to reach full velocity. Like the Juggernaut, it rolls; slowly at first, but inexorably over the days and weeks of the year, usually reaching cruising speed at around the third week of the Michaelmas term, when the terrain starts to get rocky.
Personally, I would have liked to see the story gather momentum sooner than it does. Harris spends a considerable chunk of the narrative establishing the world of St Oswald’s and the power dynamics within. While much of this is necessary, I reached a point where the plentiful descriptions of ‘the comfortable scent of chalk, old books, damp socks, wood polish and mice’ lost the rosy glow of nostalgia and began to grate. However, when the story does get going, it really gets going.
According to Elaine Showalter in Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), ‘Academic novels are rarely in sync with their decade of publication; most reflect the preceding decade’s crisis and changes.’ Showalter presents a compelling argument for this in her book; however, while the events of Different Class take place in 2005 and 1981, the questions it raises are ones of immediate concern. By splitting the narrative Harris examines the twin evils of willful ignorance and righteous extremism. In both the past and present sections of the story, homosexual characters are unfairly targetted by a small group of religious extremists. In 1981, predictably, the institution sides against the homosexuals. However, in 2005 when the school has implemented policies to prevent this sort of prejudice, a gay student is suspended for standing up to his bully. In both cases, certain characters manipulate the witch hunts to divert attention away from thier own ill deeds. In this way, Harris shows how, even with the best intentions, people are easily distracted and lose sight of the real monsters. As I was reading, I thought about the social justice warriors of today, and how we’re so busy policing each other, on school and university campuses, in the media and in real life that it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re really fighting for and the greater evils we may be letting past the keeper while we squabble over technicalities. It brought to mind Gay Alcorn’s recent piece in The Guardian, ‘Conservatives love to hate political correctness, but the left should rail against it too’. It’s a tricky issue. Texts that point out the Achilles’ heel of political correctness (that it can be used to perpetrate the very inequality and prejudice it seeks to prevent) are often problematic. In particular, I’m thinking of David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) and Helen Garner’s non-fiction title, The First Stone: Some Questions About Sex and Power (1995), both of which depict straight, white academic men as ‘victims’ and imply that their female students lodge sexual harassment complaints against them as a means of taking back power. Like I said, problematic stuff, especially in the case of Garner’s book, where the two women in question declined to be interviewed. However, even if you ultimately disagree with Mamet and Garner’s points of view, their texts raise important if uncomfortable questions about how institutional policies that are intended to protect may be wielded as instruments of power. Harris takes a less confrontational approach but she challenges her reader with these same questions (her master manipulator is not a member of a minority group but uses St Oswald’s newfound obsession with political correctness for personal gain).
For all I appreciated the provocative themes, I don’t think I would have enjoyed Different Class half so much without Straitley in the narrator’s chair. Like him, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon: rather conservative for a millennial, resistant to change and prone to nostalgia. I can sympathise with the comfort he takes in tradition and appreciated his sharp wit, minor eccentricities and occasional flights of whimsy. He’s backwards, but he knows it. Revels in it even. Without him stealing the honour boards slated for resale to a theme pub in the dead of night, hiding garden gnomes around campus and irritating his colleagues with pithy if pretentious Latin aphorisms, the whole thing would feel rather heavy.
Ziggy, too, is an intriguing chap, though rather less sympathetic than Straitley. Initially, I found him somewhat arch but warmed to him as the narrative progressed and Harris revealed more about his background. I’d say more, but spoilers.
Employing the two narrators allows Harris to have great fun with misdirection, but also offers a more balanced story and humanises Ziggy. Without his point of view, it would be difficult to see the logic to his motives and he’d be in danger of coming across as flat and simplistically ‘evil’.
Different Class is cosy, yet challenging; as with her characters, Harris lulls the reader into a false sense of comfort before things get properly sinister. It’s cleverly written, tightly plotted and simmers with slow-burning suspense. If ‘hot house’ crime is your thing, this is one for the reading pile.
Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of Different Class in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up six critical issues and twelve advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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