‘I waited patiently for the next hand to be played out, and I had a feeling it was going to be a Natural, a perfect nine.’
His name is Lord Doyle.
His plan: to gamble away his last days in the dark and decadent casino halls of Macau.
His game: baccarat punto blanco -- 'that slutty dirty queen of casino card games.'
Though Doyle is not a Lord at all. He is a fake; a corrupt lawyer who has spent a career siphoning money from rich clients. And now he is on the run, determined to send the money – and himself – up in smoke.
So begins a beguiling, elliptical velvet rope of a plot: a sharp suit, yellow kid gloves, another naughty lemonade and an endless loop of small wins and losses. When Lady Luck arrives in the form of Dao-Ming, a beautiful yet enigmatic lost soul, so begins a spectacular and unnatural winning streak in which millions come Doyle’s way. But in these shadowy dens of risk and compulsion, in a land governed by superstition, Doyle knows that when the bets are high, the stakes are even greater.
The Ballad of a Small Player is a sleek, dark-hearted masterpiece: a ghost story set in the land of the living, and a decadent morality tale of a Faustian pact made, not with the devil, but with fortune’s fickle hand.
A modern Graham Greene.... into this relatively quiet period for British fiction, someone remarkable and unexpected has emerged fully armed with a formidable, masterly grip on the British novel. At precisely the point where most novelists start to show signs of flagging, Osborne has hit his creative, fictional stride...and has arrived as a thrilling, exceptional talent in British fiction's landscape.
A perfectly written existential thriller, a spooky, gripping, heart-in-your-mouth read that has profound things to say about the only god who rules human affairs – chance.
Damn. Another writer I have to care about… dark, brilliant and about as ignorable as a switchblade.
The Ballad of a Small Player shares the exoticism and East-West disconnect of The Quiet American, the unresolved supernaturalism of The Heart of the Matter and Loser Takes All's bittersweet relationship with the gaming tables. If Osborne's book is a love letter to gambling, it's the kind written at 3am to an indifferent ex after an evening at the bar -- an ode to self-destruction. A brisk, electrifying read... the most ambiguous, and therefore the most enjoyable, kind of ghost story. The Ballad of a Small Player remains elusive, and is all the better for that.
Hypnotic, razor-sharp in its insights, compelling... in Osborne's hands, the moments of suspense are handled with so much skill that we sometimes read them more as memoir than elements of a thriller.