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Benedict Kiely: The Cards of the Gambler

Kiely’s best-known novel updates a traditional Irish legend about a gambler and his dealings with Death. In the original legend, the gambler is out gambling one night and loses everything. He returns home the following morning, having forgotten that his wife is about to give birth, to find that she has, in fact, given birth. Feeling he needs to do one decent deed, he goes off to find a priest to baptise the child. On his way he meets a strange priest, who turns out to be God, and another man who turns out to be Death. At the request of Death, God gives the gambler three wishes. The first wish is to always win at cards, the second is the power of healing and third – which he keeps hidden from Death – is that whoever takes an apple from his tree in his garden will be unable to leave without his permission. He spends much of the rest of his life, outsmarting Death but, of course, Death wins in the end, though there is a twist.

Kiely’s tells the tale of a contemporary doctor, who has lost everything in gambling, even his car, and returns home drunk and broke, to find his wife had given birth to their third child, a boy. He makes his deal with God and Death, with the slight variation that anyone who gets into his car will be unable to leave without his permission and that he can only heal people if Death is found at the foot of the bed. If Death is at the head of the bed, then Death gets the victim. After that we follow him as he wins a lot of money gambling and then heals people all over the world, outsmarting Death along the way. Of course, we know what is going to happen and who is going to get caught in the car but, as in the original, Kiely throws us a couple of twists.

Kiely tells his story very well. While the overall outcome is never in doubt – after all, we are all going to die one day – Kiely puts a lot more into the story. The gambler’s side trip to Spain, for example, where he again outsmarts Death or his meeting with the big man, whom Kiely equates with St. Christopher, but only by giving us arcane clues, are superbly well-told little stories in their own right and, of course, his anthropomorphisation of God and Death are very clever. A most enjoyable book.

Publishing history

First published 1953 by Methuen