A middle-aged English solicitor, of low to middling class, has embezzled a fortune from an elderly widow and stashed his ill-gotten wealth in oriental accounts. Now, hiding out in Macau, a forgotten rock in the South China Sea, under the assumed moniker, ‘Lord Doyle’, he proceeds to gamble away his days and nights, living a lifestyle of champagne cocktails and yellow kid gloves and slowly squandering everything he has struggled to steal on unskilled games of punta banca baccarat. And all good things must come to an end.
Luckily — as this is a novel about many things but principally about the fickle nature of fortune — Dao-Ming strays into his life just has he hits bottom. She bails him out of an enormous unpaid restaurant bill, offers him sanctuary and sustenance on her Hong Kong island home of Lamma, and finally, impossibly, changes his luck.
She is an enigma: young, beautiful, seemingly fragile, a high-class prostitute drawn to the risk of the gaming tables, but gentle and generous to Doyle, and an absurdly lucky charm. She seems too good to be true, but Macau is a place where truth matters less than appearances. By contrast, Doyle’s nature is reckless, even fatalistic, and he needs to feed his habit.
Life, after all, is a game, and in stories like this it is always too late to change. With her to inspire him he gambles again, starts to win and then keeps on. But as the stakes and payoffs increase, so too does the risk, not least his own sense of reality.
Unavoidable comparisons will be drawn with Graham Greene’s work.
Lawrence Osborne — who, in 2012, enjoyed great acclaim with his novel, The Forgiven — has a masterful touch with creating mood, and a swirling, world-weary foreignness pervades the story. The Ballad of a Small Player is a layered work, a novel about addiction, love and class but given a allusive face by the way it perches constantly on some supernatural brink. The Chinese refer to Doyle, in slightly derisive fashion, as a ‘Gwai-lo’, their word for foreigner, which translates as ‘ghost person’, and a sense of the ghostly is everywhere in this book. Between the exotica of the setting and the determined probing of an addict’s motivations, there is something eerie and almost hallucinogenic at play. Nothing is ever quite as it seems.
Lord Doyle is the quintessential stranger in a strange land, hopeless in his paradise, a lost soul who only feels properly alive and grounded in the moments of a card’s turning. Winning or losing hardly matters against the high found in the thrill of the chase. The problem, though, is that people aren’t pawns, and there is a high price to be paid for having the devil’s luck.