Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player follows an Englishman, known as Lord Doyle, through the casinos of Macau as he gambles away his apparently ‘Inexhaustible Fund’. The first chapter already throws up a multitude of questions: How did Doyle get this ‘Inexhaustible Fund’? Is it really inexhaustible? Is Doyle really a lord? Is he some kind of Graham Greene character? Can we expect pages of twists and international intrigue?
By the end of chapter two, we pretty much know all the answers: He stole it from an old lady. No. No. No. And no. Which leads to one more question: why read on? It’s a very valid question. And the answer isn’t so readily apparent. But then, just as Doyle’s game of choice, Baccarat, urges him to keep turning over one hand after another, Osborne’s sharp, compelling prose is equally addictive – just one more page, one more page.
As a lawyer in England, Doyle skimmed increasingly large amounts from an elderly client’s account, until most of her wealth was in his own account in Hong Kong. He, understandably, goes on the run and ends up in Macau. What better way to dispose of his ill-gotten gains than to gamble them? And then gamble the winnings – whenever he has any. But it isn’t the winning that Doyle enjoys: ‘What I had discovered was a taste for losing.’
And lose he does. Big time. To the point where he could be deported back to England. But right at his very lowest moment, when it could hardly get any worse, coincidence steps out of the blue and saves him. This might seem like a lazy plot choice. And it did conjure up a memory of a quote by Pixar director Emma Coats: ‘Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great,’ she says, then adds, ‘coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.’
And yet, Osborne even gets away with ‘cheating’. Coincidence is such an intrinsic part of the story conceit that Doyle could not have been saved in any other way except by coincidence. And, just like his other successes, his recue is short lived. He steals money from the very person who saved him, goes on to hit a record – again, highly unlikely – winning streak, with only occasional thoughts of returning the stolen amount.
Still, Doyle remains strangely charming. This painfully lonely man’s absolute inability to help himself is disarming, especially when we realise he will no longer get help from that one saviour he’d robbed. It’s not that Doyle is a character that deserves sympathy, but given how tragic he becomes, it’s more a matter of waiting to see how Lady Luck will finally treat him. Osborne involves the reader in Doyle’s gamble with life, and it’s so tempting to turn just one more page to see if this is where he wins, or ultimately loses.
Any Cop?: I’d love to give The Ballad of a Small Player a nine: a winning hand at Baccarat and, therefore, Doyle’s favourite number. Osborne’s novel might not quite draw a hand that high, but it’s certainly worth taking a chance on.