Friday 3 April 2015

The Ballad of a Small Player - Lawrence Osborne

This was one of those books where was very excited when I saw it, but when I read the blurb I quickly became less so, and decided to leave it on the tbr heap for a little while. In fact I had it buried away on the heap for almost a year, until finally I saw that it was listed as one of the up coming Waterstones book club titles, and I decided I really should get on with it. This delay on my part did this book a massive disservice, because it is really rather brilliant; understated but brilliant.
The initial premise is simple, a corrupt lawyer embezzles money from his small town clients and runs off with it to the gambling dens and casinos of Macau to see how long his ill-gotten gains will last him if he settles down to a life as a high-roller in these former colonial outposts. I think it was this basic outline that put me off, when I initially received the book, that and the comparison that someone made to me with James Bond. I rather enjoy reading Fleming's originals, they are such cult classics of their genre, but the sections in Bond where half the novel is spent dissecting a hand of cards in minute detail make me want to scream. However having read Small Player I see why the comparison was made. There is a louche, faded glamour to the writing. A definite feel of having gone to seed that often lurks away in the background of Fleming's books. Couple that with the setting; a far east Casino and the images that came to mind were certainly Bondesque- all very Skyfall.
Bubbling away underneath the story of an immoral man on a losing streak is something a little more sinister, something supernatural maybe. This is never made explicit, although this is certainly what out Small Player believes. Having met, and had a short affair with a local prostitute, a poor girl from one of the villages he runs off with her life savings and starts to gamble again. The inevitability of this theft is obvious, all parties know this. However after the event, Doyle's guilt starts to play tricks on him. Is his new found luck natural, or has Dao-Ming's influence taken over. The lack of clarity about a possible malign influence is genuinely creepy, and the sense of unease grows right up to the climax of the novel.
The combination of sinister spirits and gambling make the genre of this novel a little hard to pin down. It's not horror and certainly isn't a thriller; there is far too little 'action' for that, however anyone who is interested in an intelligent and dark little read should give this one a try.

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