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The Gun Seller (book review)

March 8, 2010

The Gun Seller
By Hugh Laurie, yes That Hugh Laurie
Washington Square Press, 1998, 368 pages

“Darkly comic” sounds like a cliche that book reviewers toss around until it’s ceased to mean anything. But- in this case, it’s true. Hugh Laurie’s novel is dark and violent. It begins with the main character’s arm breaking, and continues towards murders and arms deals.

But, it’s also hilarious. Mostly, in the form of the narrator’s asides, and whimsically wry turns of phrase. “There was a bomb scare on the flight out to Prague. No bomb, but lots of scare.” Laurie’s clearly having fun with the language. Very droll British fun. “I picked up a glass and a bottle of the Famous Grouse, poured myself a couple of fingers, and… added enough water to turn it into just a Vaguely Familiar Grouse.” Or “swallows flitted here and there, darting in and out of the bushes, like furtive homosexuals, while the furtive homosexuals flitted here and there, pretty much like swallows.” Heh.

Thomas Lang is either an arms dealer involved in a vast conspiracy, who plays dumb— or an innocent man in love, victim only of being in the exactly wrong place to be caught in a cascade of violence and intrigue, getting between him and the safety of his loved ones. Neither the reader, nor the novel itself, seems entirely sure which. Thomas blunders from attempting murder to escaping certain death, in a cascade of supporting characters that leave everyone confused who’s on whose side.

It’s an action thriller, punctuated by British  humor and sly linguistic jabs.  Reading this in search of either works. Think Jeeves and Wooster go bloodthirsty. Plenty of car-chases, gunplay, near-death, blackmail, and even romance. Punctuated, and made unique by an excellent set of linguistic gymnastics and wit in the asides. Unfortunately, the craft of the plot seems to fall apart in the last third, when suddenly, Thomas has joined a militant organization called the Sword of Justice, precariously undercover as a dumb American. Cynically, I wonder whether Laurie had gone back to filming House by that point, or had just decided that he’d had enough of the experiment of writing a thriller. Part One is such a fun blend of action and puns, though, that it, at least, is worth a read, if you don’t mind that it might fizzle by the end.

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