I’ve had a few celebrity crushes in my day. My longtime British boyfriend, however, has been Hugh Laurie. Yes, that Hugh Laurie—Bertie Wooster or tv’s Greg House, M.D. I have long admired his Renaissance man persona—comedian, actor, sketch writer, raconteur, musician (I highly recommend his blues cd, Let Them Talk, incidentally).
You can add novelist to that list too. I recently finished his spy spoof, The Gun Seller. I liked it quite a bit. But I have to confess, I really only wanted to read it initially because Hugh Laurie wrote it. As a rule, I’m not a fan of the type of book he’s sending up, so normally I’d have never picked this up. But I’m such a huge fan of his in general that I couldn’t resist–really, the things we do for love, you know?
Overall though, I’d give this a thumb’s up—it’s great fun, if a little muddled plot-wise. Sort of Bertie Wooster meets Jason Bourne with a largish dash of James Bond thrown in. The narrator is Thomas Lang, who is ex-military and now works as a gun-for-hire of sorts. The problem is, Thomas is really too nice to BE a gun-for-hire, so he’s actually not all that successful at it. When he’s offered a lot of money to assassinate an American manufacturing billionaire, he turns the job down, but, being a nice guy, he also decides he should warn his would-be target, Alexander Woolf, that someone wants to kill him. He then discovers that Woolf is the guy who tried to hire him for the hit. Yes, that’s right. On himself. Things get even nuttier from there—Lang falls for Woolf’s enigmatic daughter, Sarah, runs afoul of British Intelligence, the CIA, and a gun runner, and ends up smack in the middle of a wild plot cooked up by the international military complex involving a stealth helicopter and a lot of bad guys.
As spoofs go, this has everything—the droll Bond-like dialogue, plenty of femme fatales, ridiculous amounts of weaponry, and even a Swiss ski resort. Thomas may prefer whisky to martinis and motorcycles to Aston Martins, and he’s never sure of who is on what side—or even how many sides there are—and he’s certainly a reluctant hero, but he’s a straight arrow. Laurie gives Thomas a set of ethics that are pretty straightforward—he doesn’t kill people, he attempts to play fair in a pretty unfair fight, and he knows right from wrong. He’s almost normal, in fact, which stands in stark contrast to the ridiculous plot he finds himself in, and that’s this novel’s greatest success, because someone with less skill could have allowed his hero to flounder or go under amidst such hijinks, but Thomas manages to swim along with the absurdity just fine while hanging on to his sanity. He’s a great character and a fun narrator—even he sees the absurdity of the situation he’s in, and his witty narration and snappy comebacks make reading about his adventures a true pleasure.
Laurie isn’t quite so successful with the other characters, but again, this is a spoof, so I’m not sure the supporting cast needs to be completely three dimensional or devoid of stereotypes—even Thomas isn’t (he’s got that whole stiff upper lip thing going, for one thing). The biggest problem is that it can be hard to keep all of the government people straight—they’re all in the hush-hush end of government, so they’re supposed to be a bit of a mystery in terms of just what, exactly, it is that they do, but after a bit they get all jumbled up and it’s hard to remember which ones are the CIA, which ones are British Intelligence, and which ones are on what side—I had a hard time trying to decide if this was deliberate because Thomas himself doesn’t seem to know, but in the end, I think I would have liked just a little more clarification. He does a better job with the women and with the villains, and especially with the members of the rather sadsack terrorist group Thomas eventually infiltrates, which has the hilariously bad name The Sword of Justice.
There are some rather obvious plot issues—for one thing, Thomas is clearly not successful at what he does, but one assumes he does have to pay the rent with something, and it’s really never made clear how he supports himself—Military pension? Odd jobs? And sometimes the over-the-top plotting, which is necessary for this type of book, gets away from Laurie, especially as events begin to get more complicated. Just one example involves that Swiss ski resort, where the Sword of Justice is waiting to assassinate the unsuspecting Dutch Finance Minister. One would assume that as a terrorist organization, these people are not on the same social level as the Dutch Finance Minister, yet they’re all staying in the same exclusive ski resort. Now it’s true the Sword of Justice is being funded by the same people who are trying to sell all the stealth helicopters, so it’s not so much the money that bothered me as it was the whole social milieu. Would they all be furnished with the proper clothes, for example, because honestly, in places like that people can tell the difference between high end skiwear and something from Marks and Sparks. And wouldn’t the police who investigate the assassination be suspicious of them since they’re not the right “type” of people to stay in such a place? Yet they all seem to leave without having really ever been questioned beyond the basics. The few instances like this are a little bothersome, but they don’t actually drag things to a screeching halt so much as make you think “He could have done that better.”
And the layers upon layers of complications get to be a bit much, too—the Sword of Justice people are real terrorist wannabes, but they don’t seem to realize they’re being set up to take the fall for an even bigger act of terrorism, and by the end it’s nearly impossible to figure out just who, exactly, is in on all this plotting and who is trying to stop it. However, I’m willing to forgive all the double-dealing and double-crossing because Laurie seems to have an actual point to that, which is that our governments are probably involved in sketchy operations that we know nothing about, and that what really drives the world economy isn’t oil, necessarily, but military equipment sales—arms dealing, in other words. And when poor Alexander Woolf is blissfully ignorant of just what his doodads are used for in those oh-so-profitable military contracts, he’s happy to take the money. When he discovers the truth—and more besides—and objects, he finds himself with a target on his forehead and flat broke. Because there are vast amounts of money involved, and these people do not mess around.
Fortunately, neither does Thomas Lang. Because he’s such a great character, he really helps you get past the sometimes muddy waters of the plot, and the end has yet another twist or two that not only helps bring things together in a satisfactory manner, but manages to surprise as well. Folks who live and breathe these kinds of action-adventure spyjinks novels will find all of this not only unrealistic, but ridiculous, but if you’re up for some funny shenanigans on an international level with relatively low levels of actual violence (be warned, though, that there are a few fairly brutal moments, but they pass quickly and they are absolutely essential to the book’s success and not just tossed in for gratuitous violence’s sake), then this might be just the ticket for you, especially if you like that dry humor the English are famous for. Because this a very funny book. I laughed out loud a lot while I was reading, and overall, I had a great time with it.