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Different Class

A Novel

“It’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Bad Seed. Joanne Harris’s latest novel, Different Class, has a killer elevator pitch and, what’s more, it delivers on its intriguing premise….[A] rich, dramatic tale that builds to a surprising conclusion.” —The Washington Post

“Harris delivers mischief and murder to an English prep school in Different Class, a delightfully malicious view of privileged students with overly active imaginations.” —The New York Times Book Review

From the New York Times bestselling author of Chocolat comes a dark, psychological suspense tale in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith about a sociopathic young outcast at an antiquated prep school and the curmudgeonly Latin teacher who uncovers his dangerous secret.

After thirty years at St. Oswald’s Grammar in North Yorkshire, England, Latin master Roy Straitley has seen all kinds of boys come and go. Each class has its own clowns, rebels, and underdogs—all who hold a special place in the old teacher’s heart. But every so often there’s a boy who doesn’t quite fit the mold. A troublemaker. A boy with darkness inside.

With insolvency and academic failure looming, a new headmaster arrives at the venerable school, bringing with him new technology, sharp suits, and even girls to the dusty corridors. But while Straitley does his sardonic best to resist these steps toward the future, a shadow from his past begins to stir again. A boy who still haunts Straitley’s dreams twenty years later. A boy capable of terrible things.

Different Class


St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys

Michaelmas Term, September 7, 2005

Ah, yes. There she blows. St. Oswald’s, a metaphor for eternity if ever I saw one, heaving into view like something from a boys’ adventure book—a Jules Verne, perhaps, as the mysterious island peers over the horizon. Or a Rider Haggard, in which sinister natives cower and lurk at the gates of the Forbidden City. You can see the Bell Tower from the road, the peaked turret that has never housed a bell a haunt for pigeons—and lately, mice. And behind it, the long spine of the Middle Corridor, mullioned with light, and the illuminated front of the Chapel, the rose window casting its fugitive gleam across the walk of lindens.

Home at last, I tell myself, and the thought is at the same time a benediction and a curse.

Silly old fool, comes my silent retort, in a voice eerily like that of my colleague and longtime adversary, Dr. “Sourgrape” Devine. I’ll be sixty-six on Bonfire Night, with a hundred and two terms under my fast-expanding belt—what will it take to keep me away?

Good question. It’s a drug, of course. Like the occasional Gauloise, taken in secret behind the door of my office, it helps to keep me going. And my ticker pills, of course, prescribed for me by my doctor after last year’s little incident—along with a good deal of unwanted advice on smoking, stress, and pastry.

My doctor is an ex-pupil of mine (the Village is full of them nowadays), which makes him hard to take seriously. He means well, for all that, and I do try my best to humor him. But stress is a part of the job, and besides, what would the old place become without me? Thirty-four years I’ve served on this ship. I know it from every angle. Master and boy; teacher trainee; form tutor; Head of Classics; and now, Old Centurion. Might as well try to knock the gargoyles off the Chapel roof as dislodge old Straitley, and if the management doesn’t like it, at least they have the sense to keep quiet on the subject. I did the School a service last year—the year that, after a promising start, became our annus horribilis—besides which my Latin results were the best we’ve had since ’89. At the time, I’ll admit it, I was close to giving in. But murder, scandal, deception, and fraud have driven the old ship onto the rocks. How could I leave St. Oswald’s to the scavengers and the wrecking crew?

So here I am again, two days before the official stampede, watering the plants, clearing my desk (well, I aim to), and generally planning next year’s campaign with the cunning and precision of a Marcus Aurelius. Or so I hope my colleagues will think, when they arrive this afternoon for the ritual preterm staff meeting to find me already installed in my room in the Bell Tower, smoking a quiet cigarette and fully conversant with the new term’s class lists, timetable, gossip, and dirt, the stuff on which St. Oswald’s dines like the graveyard kings of old.

I owe much of my insider information to a single source. Jimmy Watt. My secret weapon. Reinstated after last year and promoted to the position of Assistant Porter. No intellectual, but sound, and good with his hands—besides which Jimmy owes me a favor or two, and through him I hear much of what is denied my more elevated colleagues.

“Morning, boss.” His face is round and good-natured, lit now with a brilliant smile. “Good holiday?”

“Yes, thank you, Jimmy.” I try to remember the last time I went on holiday. Unless you count that School trip to France in 1978, when Eric Scoones took the boys on foot to see the Sacré-Coeur by night, blissfully unaware that the famous basilica sits in the middle of the most notorious red-light district in Paris.

I suppose I must have had a holiday—if you can call it that, with its burden of wasps and cricket and bare midriffs and unseasonal rainstorms, with tea in the afternoons and the mantelpiece clock ticking away the long and somnolent summer days. Gods, I think, it’s good to be back. But how long for? A term? A year? What next? What then?

Holidays, I suppose. Leisure activities. Novels. An allotment, perhaps, somewhere up by the Abbey Road estate, where I will grow rhubarb and listen to the wireless. Hobbies. Pub quizzes. Sudoku, whatever that is. All the things I postponed in the name of duty, back in the days when such things were still to be desired. Depressing prospect. A St. Oswald’s Master has no time for frivolities, and it is far, far too late for me to develop a taste for them now.

“Yes, back in the jug for another stint,” I told Jimmy, with a smile so that he would know that I was joking. “You’d almost think I liked it here.”

Jimmy gave his honking laugh. I suppose it must seem strange to him; but then, of course, he’s still young. He has his pastimes—such as they are—and the great white whale of St. Oswald’s has not yet consumed him entirely.

“Any sign of the new New Head?”

“He’s in his office. I’ve seen his car.”

“He didn’t introduce himself? Pop into the Lodge for a cup of tea?”

Jimmy grinned and shook his head. I expect he thought I was joking. But a good Headmaster knows his staff before he takes the helm of the ship—and that means the cleaners, the Porter, and the ladies who make the tea. A good Head values the rank and file at least as much as the officers. But since his appointment in early June, sightings of the new New Head have been infrequent, to say the least. We know him by name and, to some extent, by reputation. But only a privileged few have seen his face. Rumours abound, however. Meetings held behind closed doors; whispers of insolvency and academic failure; all compounded by a far from friendly School Inspection which, added to the most appalling set of exam results in St. Oswald’s memory, has brought us to this all-time low; a Crisis Intervention.

The dreadful events of last year; the murder of a schoolboy, the stabbing of a member of staff, and the scandal that split the Common Room still reverberate, even now, and there have been many casualties. We lost our Second Master, Pat Bishop, as a result of those events, and since his departure there has been unrest, unease, and downright rebellion among the rank and file, while Bob Strange—the Third Master, a clever administrator, but with no flair for people—tried to keep the old galley from sinking with the help of computers, management courses, and internal assessment.

It didn’t work. Our Captain, the erstwhile New Head, unaccustomed to command, began to flounder. There were mutterings in the ranks; some staff deserted (or walked the plank) and finally, in June, came confirmation from the Governors of what they called an “emergency management restructuring.” In layman’s terms, the hemlock bowl.

Not that I cared much for the man. Suits come, Suits go, and in sixteen years he’d achieved little for us, and still less for himself. St. Oswald’s tradition dictates that a Headmaster shall always be known as the New Head, until he has earned the respect of the crew. The old New Head never managed this. A state-school man in shades of gray, whose tendency was to dwell on the smaller transgressions of St. Oswald’s dress code rather than turn his mind to the general health of the corpus scolari.

The new man, rumour tells us, is very different. A Super Head, trained in PR—and sound, according to Bob Strange, which makes him eminently qualified to take the helm of our leaky old ship and to steer us triumphantly into happier waters. I personally doubt this. He sounds like another Suit to me—and his absence throughout the summer term, when he could have been getting to know his staff, suggests that he will be one of those men who expects the menial work to be done invisibly, by others, while he enjoys the benefits; the publicity and the glory.

His name, we know, is Harrington. It happens to be the name of a boy I once disliked very strongly: not the new man’s fault, of course, nor is it such an uncommon name, but I can’t help wishing that his name had been Smith or Robinson. We know little else about him, except that he is a guru of sorts, having already saved two failing schools in Oldham and in Milton Keynes; is a prominent member of Survivors, a charitable organization dealing with child abuse; and has an MBE from the Queen. We also know, thanks to Jimmy Watt, that he is young, good-looking, well dressed, and drives a silver BMW (a fact that already ensures him Jimmy’s wholehearted support and admiration).

“That’s what St. Oswald’s needs,” says Bob Strange. “A new broom, to sweep away the cobwebs.”

Well, I, for one, liked the cobwebs. I suspect that to Strange I am one myself. But our Bob has hopes of promotion. At forty-six he is no longer a Young Gun, and his flair for technology, which might have been unusual twenty years ago, is now the norm for the new generation. Failing the Headship, he covets the post of Second Master—and with reason; he’s been doing Pat Bishop’s job since Christmas. Of course, a post at St. Oswald’s is always more than the sum of its parts, and the things that made Bishop a success—his heart, his humanity, his genuine affection for the boys and for the School—had nothing to do with his job description. Strange has never quite grasped this, and the rest of us have long since given up hope that he might emerge from his cocoon of paperwork as a flamboyant Second Master. On the other hand, it could be that the new man will need inside help; someone to show him the ropes, perhaps, and to give him the dirt on his pirate crew.

Strange most certainly fits the bill. His glaucous eyes see everything: who is late for lessons; who has trouble with the boys; who steals the Common Room copy of the Daily Mail to read in his form room during Prep. He keeps to his office most of the time, and yet his ears are always open. He has his spies among the staff (some even suspect him of using hidden cameras), and as a result he is respected and feared, though seldom actually liked. He runs the timetable, and those unfortunate enough to be out of favor get more than their fair share of Friday-­afternoon cover and lower third-form sets. A sneak, in short. A management stooge.

This morning as I made my way up the stairs to my form room, I wondered—with some small apprehension—what the coming term might bring. So many things have changed since last year; so many colleagues reshuffled, or gone. Bishop; Pearman; Grachvogel; the Head—and, of course, our own Miss Dare. I could have been among them—in fact, I fully intended to retire, but for the state of the dear old place, and the gnawing conviction that the moment I left, Bob Strange would delete my subject from the curriculum.

Besides, what would I do without the perpetual soap opera of St. Oswald’s to sustain me? And my boys—my Brodie Boys—who else but I could look after them?

The scent reached me as I opened the door. “Eau de Room 59,” a blend so familiar that for ten months a year I barely notice its presence. And yet here it is again, as nostalgic as burning leaves; a comforting scent of wood, books, polish, geranium, mice, old socks, and perhaps a hint of illicit Gauloise. I lit one in celebration, knowing that when Dr. Sourgrape Devine—Head of German, Head of Amadeus House, and (more’s the pity) Health and Safety Officer to St. Oswald’s and the world—made his entrance, such luxuries as a quiet smoke, a pasty, or even a licorice allsort (of which I have a small supply hidden in my desk drawer) would be once more forbidden to me.

Speak of the devil. Damn and blast. He must have got in early this morning, because I’d barely blown out the match when I heard a sound of footsteps at my door and glimpsed the end of Devine’s sharp nose behind the panel of frosted glass.

“Morning, Devine!” I disposed of match and cigarette under the lid of the Master’s desk.

“Morning, Straitley.” The nose twitched, but refrained from comment.

“Good holiday?”

“Yes, thank you.” He and I both know that Dr. Devine hates holidays. On the other hand, as a married man, he has, I suppose, some responsibility to Mrs. Devine, and so grudgingly, once a year, he packs off to the French Riviera and spends two weeks planning lessons in the shade while his wife—a well-preserved fifty—sunbathes, plays tennis, and goes to the spa. “And you?”

“Oh yes. Great fun. Been here long?”

“Been coming in since last week,” he said, with a casualness that filled me with suspicion. “Things to do. You know what it’s like.”

I certainly do. Any excuse to get back to St. Oswald’s. He’s an ambitious chap in spite of his age (sixty, damn him, and looks younger), and he must have guessed that there might soon be a Third Master’s job going begging, or if not, some new and highly paid administrative post. Besides, the New Head will surely need a friend on the ground, and Devine sees no reason for Bob Strange to be the only contender.

“Inducting new staff?” I said slyly.

I know that this year, appointments have been mainly overseen by Bob Strange, the New Head, and the Bursar; and that as Head of German, Devine feels that he should have had a more central role in the department’s restructuring. Kitty Teague’s promotion to Head of French, for instance, he feels to be inappropriate, and he is aggrieved at the fact that two new appointments have already been made, largely at her discretion. For myself, I’m rather fond of Miss Teague, whom I’ve known since she was a teacher trainee. I think she’ll make a splendid Head of French, and I suspect old Devine knows it too.

As for his own department—well. The new German Master, his protégé, already strikes me as dubious. His name precedes him—Markowicz—though apparently his busy schedule means he won’t be in School until next week. I know that kind of member of staff—the sort who puts administrative work before the lowly business of actually teaching his subject—and I’m not sure his appointment will reflect well on his Head of Department.

“I’ve not seen much of the new staff,” said Devine in a frosty voice. “Even the New Head—” He sniffed. Some say the eyes are the mirror of the soul, but in Devine’s case it is the nose that expresses most fully the hidden emotions. His had turned pink, like an albino rabbit’s, and twitched resentfully.

“Have a licorice allsort,” I said.

He looked at me as if I’d offered him cocaine. “No thanks,” he replied. “I don’t indulge.”

“A pity,” I said, selecting a yellow one. “I’ve always thought a little indulgence would do you the world of good.”

He gave me a look. “You would,” he said. “Have you seen him? The New Head, I mean?”

“I’m beginning to think he’s the Invisible Man. Still, he’ll be here at eleven o’clock for the Headmaster’s Briefing. I imagine everyone’s curious to see how he’s going to handle the situation. It’s not every day you get to meet a Super Head.”

Devine gave a percussive sniff.

“I take it you’ve met.”

“We exchanged a few words.”

It struck me then that there was something distinctly odd about his manner. Dr. Devine has never been the most outspoken of people, especially where criticism of the management is concerned. I wondered what the new man had said to him to provoke such a reaction.

“And?” I prompted.

But Devine had regained his usual composure. His allegiance to the management means that whatever his personal dissatisfactions, he does not discuss them with the baser element. “You’ll see,” he said, and left the room, leaving in his wake an unmistakable odor of sanctity.

• • •

I spent the following couple of hours going over my records, writing in my diary, and enjoying the occasional licorice allsort. St. Oswald’s has its own diaries, distributed to boys and staff. The boys use theirs for class notes and Prep; the staff, for planning lessons. Or rather, they did, until three years ago, when the Bursar decreed that the expense was too much of a burden. One more of our traditions gone, although I have kept a small supply of diaries, for personal use, in my stockroom. It’s not the expense I begrudge, but the fact that, on my shelf at home, I have a neatly matched set of thirty-odd School diaries, with our crest in blue and gold, and the School’s motto beneath it. It seems somehow immoral now, at the end of my career, to adopt a new design. The boys may choose what they like, of course, but I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that Prep belongs in a Prep diary, not in a Filofax, or (in the case of my boy Allen-Jones) a shocking-pink notebook with Hello Kitty on the cover.

Tomorrow, the boys return to School. It’s the moment for which I’ve been waiting all summer. Unlike Devine, who has been known to say, without a trace of irony, that the School would be far more efficient without a single boy in the place, I’m very fond of my boys, which is why I have always refused to take on extra administrative tasks, preferring to teach in room 59 rather than push papers in an office. This year, however, the first day of term will mostly serve as a vehicle for various Briefings, plus as a time to digest (and dispute) aspects of the timetable; including free periods, and extracurricular duties.

My new timetable is unusually sparse, I notice with disapproval; only twenty-one periods a week compared with the usual thirty-five. Of course everyone knows that Bob Strange (a physicist) views Latin with suspicion, and would like nothing better than to see it vanish from the timetable. So far, however, I have managed to keep control of my one-man department, and in defiance of probability, the results have remained consistently good. Still, this year I see that (no doubt with the help of the New Head), Bob has finally managed (using the National Curriculum as his low excuse) to relegate Latin to an optional subject, and moreover, has placed it in direct competition with German, which means that the serious linguists—those who want to read Languages at A-level and beyond—will have no choice but to opt for German as their second language, and either delay their study of Classics until the Sixth Form (absurd) or (worse still) choose to study Latin at lunchtimes, as an extracurricular activity.

Extracurricular! There was a time in St. Oswald’s history when everything was conducted in Latin, including Break, and boys were caned for getting their cases wrong. Rather before my time, I’ll admit. Nevertheless, how dare they?

I spent the next few minutes cursing both the New Head and Bob Strange in Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon. Then I cursed Dr. Devine, who doubtless will benefit most from the decision, and who has resented my subject since the day he arrived. Devine and I go back a long time—thirty-four years, to be exact—and during that time he has made it clear that he considers Latin obsolete and possibly subversive, interfering as it does with his Teutonic ambition. He is, if not a friend of Strange, at least a fellow traveler; and I suspect that this relegation of my subject to the option pool is at least partly due to his influence. Still, id imperfectum manet dum confectum erit, as I think Clint Eastwood may have said. There may be one more showdown before either of us hangs up his guns.

At twenty to eleven, I collected my gown from its brass hook at the back of the stock-cupboard door. Twenty years ago, all members of staff wore gowns in School. Now I am more or less alone in continuing the tradition. Still, an academic gown conceals a multitude of sins—chalk dust, tea stains, a copy of Vergil’s poetry set aside for the more tedious meetings. Not that this one would be dull, I thought as I slung on my battered old gown and made my way down to the Staff Common Room in good time for tea and a chocolate biscuit before the Headmaster’s first Briefing of term.

To my surprise, I found the Common Room already crowded. Curiosity, I suppose—besides which there’s not a lot of space when all the staff get together, and, today of all days, no one wanted to miss the chance of a ringside seat.

My favorite chair was unoccupied. Second from the left, under the clock, at a comfortable angle of sixty degrees. Years of judicious lounging have molded that chair to my exact measurements, and it will take more than a change of Head to affect its contours. I poured a cup of tea from the urn and settled in happily.

Eric Scoones was already there. My colleague for over thirty years, and a friend since childhood, he has the same concerns as I—except that, being a Modern Linguist, he is considered more of an asset to the department, and therefore feels himself to be in a superior position to mine—a fact he likes to emphasize when he is feeling insecure, which, to be fair, is most of the time.

“Morning, Straitley.”

“Morning, Scoones.”

The years have left their mark on us all, but on Eric Scoones they have settled like barnacles. The boy I knew at eleven years old—small, clever enough to have skipped a School year, mischievous and quick to flee in the face of trouble—has become a brontosaur; a large, slow half Centurion with a drinker’s nose and an alarming tendency to wheeze when climbing stairs. The mischievous boy has become a man who sees every setback as a direct blow from the Almighty. A bitter man, who believes that Life has robbed him of pleasures as yet unspecified, and looks upon the success of his friends as a personal defeat. And yet, I’m fond of the old ass, as I believe he is fond of me.

“Good holiday, Straitley?”

Even after so many years, he calls me by my surname, just as he did when we were boys, more than fifty years ago.

I gave a noncommittal shrug. “I’m not sure holidays are my cup of tea. Too stressful.”

Eric gave me a look of weary superiority. “I wouldn’t have thought you could ever be stressed. Not with your workload.”

Eric sees my timetable, with its small class sizes and emphasis on the Upper School, as a kind of hobby; a pleasant escape from the realities of teaching Modern Languages. Thus, Eric maintains a pretence of being perpetually overworked, in spite of the fact that he has no form, and therefore claims five extra hours a week to himself, while I have to cater to the needs of my boys, their work, and their parents. Having been an indifferent form tutor for the first ten years of his career, Eric now refuses to have a form, and rather despises, I suspect, the affection in which I hold my boys—a sentiment he feels to be undignified, inappropriate, and which will one day lead to trouble. In spite of this, he has a warm heart, which he hides (rather badly) beneath a facade of gruffness.

“Spotted any newbies yet?”

This was not an idle question. We lost quite a few people last year, including our Head of Department. This has left the Languages Department sadly depleted, with only the League of Nations (a husband-and-wife team of almost unbearable smugness), plus Eric, Devine, Kitty Teague—and, of course, myself—to man the departmental cannons.

Eric huffed. I took this as an expression of general dissatisfaction. I suspect he had his eye on the Head of Department’s post—in spite of the fact that he ought to be planning his retirement. But Eric is one of the old school, and the promotion of Kitty Teague seems to him unnatural. In our day, women were secretaries, or dinner-ladies, or cleaners. For one to be his superior now goes against every principle.

“It might as well be a girls’ school,” Eric said morosely. “Two more women appointed for French. That’s what you get when you appoint one as Head of Department.”

I drank my tea and forbore from comment. Male Languages graduates are like hens’ teeth in the teaching profession, and I’m sure Kitty’s judgment is perfectly sound. Still, I’m afraid the appointment of two women to our department is likely to result in a spate of ribaldry from certain of our colleagues—and I don’t expect the Bursar (who considers himself a wit) to refrain from comment.

“What about the Germans?” I said.

“Haven’t seen the new man yet. Apparently, he’s on a course. Won’t be here for another week.” Eric’s voice was listless. His opinion of members of staff who choose to go on courses, rather than stay in the classroom, is both salty and well documented.

“What about the New Head?”

Eric shrugged. “Not seen him yet. No one has, except the Inner Circle.”

“What about Devine?” I said, thinking back to the morning’s brief, uneasy encounter.

“Oh, he’s over the moon, of course. He thinks the Crisis Team walks on water.”

I shook my head. “I saw him today. He seemed a bit—preoccupied.”

“You mean, he was nosing around again. Sucking up to the Crisis Team in the name of Health and Safety.” Devine and Eric have never been friends. Eric holds Devine responsible for his own lack of promotion, and Devine considers Eric to be moody and inefficient.

“Not this time,” I told him. “I got the feeling that somehow Devine wasn’t too impressed with the New Head.”

Eric looked skeptical. “Oxbridge man; education guru; charity worker; Superman. What else does he want?”

What else, indeed?

“Of course,” said Eric mournfully, “some might think that a Head should have spent at least a few years in the classroom. Some might question the wisdom of letting a state-school Yes-man into a place like St. Oswald’s.”

I could see his point, of course. A Head starts out at the chalk-face not in some PR hothouse. And yes, St. Oswald’s traditions are not those of the state sector. But crisis measures (and their Heads) are usually short-term investments. St. Oswald’s has stood for five hundred years. State-school man or not, I thought, how much damage could he do?

By now it was time for the meeting to start, and yet the famous Super Head still hadn’t made his appearance. What was the fellow waiting for? I suspected a showman, and pouring myself another cup of tea, I settled into my armchair and prepared to watch the show.

Five minutes later it began. The door opened; silence fell; a phalanx of Suits entered the room in arrow formation. Bob Strange was among them, his face oddly expressionless, flanked by Devine and the Bursar; but no one paid them much attention. Instead, all eyes were on the newcomers. Two men and one woman—all three smart and so well pressed you could have cut yourself on the creases. The New Head was at the tip of the arrow (I assumed the two Suits were his Crisis Team), and I had time to take in the cut of his suit, the shine on his shoes, and a smile that would have made a piano keyboard look narrow before recognition surprised me into a muffled oath and the contents of my teacup soaked my trouser leg and began to trickle inexorably toward my shoes.

A Master never forgets a face, though boys’ names often come and go. I’d put down the name to coincidence—in over forty years of teaching, one tends to encounter most names more than once. But as soon as I saw his face, I knew that my instinct had been right.

Because I knew the man, you see. Dr. Harrington, MBE—Johnny Harrington of 3S—returned after twenty years’ absence to inflict fresh misery. There was no chance he wouldn’t recognize me; as he scanned the little crowd our eyes met and his smile broadened still further. He gave me a nod, as if greeting an old friend, and my heart sank like a doomed frigate.

Johnny Harrington, ye gods. My nemesis; my bête noire; the boy who almost cost me my job and cost the School a whole lot more. And now he’s a Headmaster, forsooth—not just a Head but a Super Head—and I could almost find it in me to regret the old New Head, brittle and ineffectual as he was, because a weak Head can easily be carried by a competent deputy or two, but a Super Head allows no one to be his bearer. A Super Head follows through. A Super Head steers his own ship—proudly, yea, even unto the rocks.

And unless young Harrington has changed beyond all recognition over the past twenty years, my guess is that those rocks are precisely where we’re heading.
This reading group guide for Different Class includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joanne Harris. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


From New York Times bestselling author Joanne Harris comes a dark and twisted tale of betrayal set at a prep school.

At St. Oswald’s, a venerable boys’ school in the north of England, another tumultuous year has come to a close. The staff and boys at the school are trying to recover from the latest scandal to rock the institution, but unfortunately more upheaval is on the way. A new headmaster arrives and ushers in a wind of unwelcome changes. While old-guard Latin master Roy Straitley struggles to survive in this new system of e-mails and PowerPoint, a former student reenters his life, and with him, a twenty-year-old tale of intrigue, corruption and murder. . . .

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. How does the tone of the prologue set the stage for the rest of the novel? Discuss the relevance of the title, Different Class. Consider what the author is trying to say about class as it relates to St. Oswald’s and society. Find examples in the novel of how class is applied to the characters.

2. What point do you think the author is trying to make about the roles of religion and tradition on identity and sexuality? How are characters defined by their sexuality? Why do you suppose Harris chose to use pseudonyms for several of the main characters? How does the novel capture the feel of adolescence? Discuss the similarities and differences between the past and present students of St. Oswald’s. Are their experiences unique to the times? Explain.

3. What is Harry Clarke’s role in the novel? How does he become the “mythical beast” for several other characters? Why is he such an inspiration to so many of his students and friends? How responsible is Harry for what happens to him? What could he have done differently in the Charlie Nutter situation?

4. How does St. Oswald’s function as a character? Discuss the similarities between St. Oswald’s and its most staunch supporter, Straitley. How is Harrington a foil for Straitley, and, in many ways, St. Oswald’s?

5. The novel revolves around two sets of friends. Compare and contrast how both groups are defined. What are the similarities, the differences? Discuss what friendship means to the different characters in the novel. Lastly, what does friendship mean to you?

6. Evaluate how the author uses Latin quotes to divide the narrative. What is the importance of the quotes and how do they help shape the story? For instance, part three opens with “Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum,” which translated means: If you want peace, prepare for war. Which characters are preparing for war and with whom? Explain why you agree or disagree with this statement.

7. Consider the ways in which the Laughing Gnome might function as a symbol in the novel. Why do you think Harry left the gnome to Straitley? Do you believe that Straitley uses the gift wisely? Why or why not? What would you have done if you were in his shoes?

8. Why do you think the author chose not to identify who was writing the journal until the end of the novel? Would knowing his identity from the start change your view of him and his actions? Why or why not? What do you make of the narrator’s capitalization of his condition? What do you think his condition is?

9. Guilt is a major theme throughout the novel. Evaluate the role of guilt in the lives of the characters. What are the characters guilty of? How do the characters deal with their guilt? Does it compel them to try and right past wrongs, or make them more culpable? Is the guilt justifiable? Explain.

10. Many know the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas, but most aren’t aware that the song is based on a real-life figure from history. Saint Wenceslaus was a martyr and is the patron saint of Bohemia. On page 399, Straitley says, “And now, Charlie Nutter, whose middle name—Wenceslas—he managed to hide so completely from both his peers and his masters during his time at St. Oswald’s, and whose ghost still appears as that thin, nervous boy I overlooked so easily . . .” Discuss the significance of Charlie’s middle name. Find examples in the novel of Charlie fulfilling the role of a martyr.

11. On page 395, Eric asks Straitley, “How well do we really know our friends?” Discuss the significance of this conversation and the affect it has on their friendship going forward. What do you think of Eric and his actions?

12. Evaluate the ending of the book. Were you satisfied with what happened to the characters and how the story ended? If you could write the ending, what might you have done differently?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The author tells us what Ziggy was feeling the first time he heard Pink Floyd: “And all the songs titles were named after animals; “Pigs”; “Sheep”; “Dogs.” That one was my favorite. “Dogs.” I felt like someone had opened up a dirty window in my mind” (page 26)> Think back to the first time you heard your favorite song and discuss how that experience made you feel. How were you introduced to the song? What was the name of the song? How many times did you replay the song? When was the last time you heard the song? How have your feelings changed since that first time?

2. Grab your journal, or, if you don’t have one, take a few sheets of paper and write a letter to your teenage self. What lessons would you share? What advice would you give?

3. Discuss your favorite teacher. What do you remember most about that teacher? What subject did they teach? How did they inspire you?

4. Joanne Harris is a versatile novelist who has written acclaimed novels in diverse genres. Visit the author’s website ( and select another title in a different genre to read. Compare and contrast which themes the book has in common with Different Class. Discuss the writing style. Which do you prefer?

A Conversation with Joanne Harris

What are you working on next?

A collection of illustrated stories for adults, called Honeycomb, and a sequel to my Norse myth–based fantasy novel, The Gospel of Loki.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while writing Different Class?

Two things. One: how very close I still feel to the teacher I was fifteen years ago; and two: how much of my high school Latin I still remember.

Let’s talk movies. You’ve already had one novel, Chocolat, made into an Oscar-nominated film, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Deep. If you could cast Different Class, who would play the lead roles?

Roger Allam as Straitley; Jude Law as Harrington; Christina Hendricks as Ms. Buckfast.

You have written acclaimed novels in several different genres. Which genre do you enjoy writing the most? Which is the easiest? Which is the hardest?

I don’t think of genres when I’m writing. Instead, I think of my books as explorations of a number of common themes, viewed in a number of different ways. Some characters and themes are darker, and therefore more challenging to write than others, but generally I find that all my books have their tricky parts—especially around page 150, where I often have a period of uncertainty. Even now, after so many books, I never take things for granted.

You were a teacher for fifteen years and you dedicated the novel to your Brodie Boys. How much does your teaching experience influence your writing?

Inevitably, a lot of what I experienced as a teacher reappeared in various forms in my books. Schools are fascinating communities, in which almost anything is possible. My teaching career saw every possible permutation of tragedy, farce, and what lies in between. . . .

What are you currently reading?

I’m rereading Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, in preparation for writing the introduction to the new reissue of the novel next year.

Are you planning on returning to the halls of St. Oswald’s and to Roy Straitley?

I think so, yes. I’m very fond of Roy, and I think he has a few stories left in him yet. . . .

You’ve been quoted as saying one of your hobbies is the “quiet subversion of the system.” What do you mean by that? How has your writing allowed you to accomplish this?

I think all good writing is subversive. Stories should make people think; should provoke; should challenge ideas and assumptions. Stories are safe spaces to explore the things that make us the most uncomfortable; places in which to face our fears (and sometimes overcome them).

Music plays a significant role in Different Class. How important is music in your life? Which genre(s) of music do you listen to? Why did you decide to feature David Bowie’s music so prominently throughout the novel?

I’ve been a musician all my life. I still play in a band, and though I don’t actually write to music, I often use music to set the tone of the book I’m writing. This time, I used the Pulp album Different Class, which is appropriate on many levels, but the musical references within the story (David Bowie, Pink Floyd, etc.) are more appropriate to the era I was writing about (as well as reflecting some of my own musical tastes).

What inspired your choices of the Latin quotes that open each section?

I chose what I thought was most appropriate, as well as what Straitley would have recommended.
Photograph © Kyte Photography

Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964 to a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat. Her books are now published in over fifty countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science. She works from a shed in her garden and lives with her husband and daughter in a little wood in Yorkshire.

[A] delightfully malicious view of privileged students with overly active imaginations.

– The New York Times Book Review

Mr. Chips meets Gordon Gekko in Harris' novel of academe….Harris expertly manipulates reader expectations as to the identities of St. Oswald's true villains, past and present. A gripping fictional exposé of a tempest no teapot can contain.

– Kirkus Reviews

How well do we know the people around us? What façade do they show to the world that hides their deepest thoughts and fears?....Harris’s sharp-eyed observations of human behavior are on the mark.

– Library Journal, starred review

A thumping good showdown….Harris delivers.

– Booklist

Harris magnificently manages every minute thread of the story, and even makes us laugh along the way . . . exquisitely sinister. . . Part black comedy, part thriller, and totally enjoyable.

– Daily Mail

Her real metier is psychological suspense, and her accomplished new book, Different Class, is a prime example of her skills in this area . . . Crime novel or literary novel? Categories really don’t matter; readers will find themselves comprehensively gripped.

– Independent

A magnificently plotted and twisty journey to the heart of a 24-year-old crime...darkly humorous...constantly wrongfoots and misdirects...up to a satisfyingly eccentric conclusion.

– Observer

Slowly, Harris reveals tiny clues, withholding full explanations until the startling denouement. Classy writing, sensitive and moving.

– The Times

Harris pulls off an impeccable thriller denouement...consistently entertaining.

– Sunday Times

Deftly orchestrated and beautifully written tale of abuse, loyalty and regret.

– Guardian