Harris (Five Quarters of the Orange, 2001, etc.) tries her hand at homicide.
Her latest recounts a life-and-death struggle for the soul of a posh school for boys. It’s a mystery, of sorts, one fueled more by dramatic irony and ostensibly shocking twists than by any real suspense, since the reader knows from the start that very bad things are about to happen. The story has two narrators, one who has given his life to St. Oswald’s and one determined to destroy it. Latin teacher Roy Straitley is irascible and recalcitrant, but he’s utterly loyal to St. Oswald’s and his students love him. The crusty old master is a cliché, but Straitley is canny enough to recognize himself as a type. He’s beset on many fronts—the German department has taken over his office and the headmaster is constantly nagging him to check his e-mail—but the curmudgeon doesn’t recognize his deadliest adversary until it’s almost too late. The aforementioned antagonist is the novel’s second narrator and its villain. The shifty individual sometimes known as Snyde arrives at St. Oswald’s as the offspring of the school porter and returns, bent on destruction, in the guise of a teacher. Murder is a strong subject for an author best known for literary confectionery, and allowing a sociopath to take over storytelling duties for more than half the novel is a brave move. Unfortunately, Harris is more bold than successful. Socioeconomic inequities, neglect at home, bullying at school, unrequited love: These are all presented as sources of Snyde’s cold and calculating rage, but they’re just the handy rationalizations of a fatally narcissistic creep. The problem with giving Snyde a narrative soapbox is that the more the reader knows about this character, the less plausible this character becomes.
A daring gambit, poorly played.