21 April 2009

"The Gun Seller" by Hugh Laurie

The Gun Seller
Hugh Laurie
Date of Publication: 1 October 2008
Cover Price: $15.00
339 pages

Americans reading The Gun Seller will likely be tempted to think of it as an indictment of the post-9/11 Bush administration's rhetoric and doctrine, but it is important to remember that this was first published in 1996.  This 2008 edition includes a brief interview with author Laurie and a few prompts for book club discussion.  Thomas Lang is an ex-military Brit who is approached out of the blue with the offer of a hit contract.  Lang declines, and decides to warn the target instead.  The target, Alexander Woolf, is a wealthy and powerful man.  Who is Woolf, though, and who wants him dead?  Trying to answer these questions drives much of The Gun Seller, eventually working its way to a point where Lang has uncovered a plot to engineer an act of terrorism as part of a marketing strategy for a new attack helicopter.

Laurie is best known these days as "star of the FOX-TV series House," to borrow from the cover blurb, but once upon a time he played the role of P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster in Jeeves & Wooster.  Fans of Wodehouse will immediately recognize Laurie's affinity for the esteemed author in the relationship between Lang and fellow agent David Solomon (who even addresses Lang as "master" and "sir").  Similarly, fans of the TV series adaptation featuring Laurie will likely picture him in the role of Lang, and Stephen Fry as the dry, scheming Solomon.  According to the interview, Laurie himself has completed a screenplay adaptation for United Artists, and one imagines the story crossing media rather easily.

The predominant weakness is that Laurie's sense of humor starts on page 1 and ends on page 340.  There are spatterings of taking things seriously, but the wall-to-wall comedy sometimes gets in the way of a genuine action-thriller.  I read this over a few nights, and another problem I ran into was that, for some reason or another, each successive night required me to go back mentally to what had last happened so that I knew what was going on now.  Typically, this is only something I run into with particularly dense material, but (no offense, Mr. Laurie) The Gun Seller isn't quite on par with Plato's The Republic.  I attribute this lack of staying power to the saturation of humor.

Of course, if you want a genuine action-thriller, there are plenty of other books by plenty of other authors that will fulfill this demand.  Still, with the third act of any story relying on rising tension and action, the humor tends to deflate these crucial story elements.  Ian Fleming declared that he was a writer, not an author, and that his novels were intended strictly to entertain and not necessarily make the reader a better person.  Laurie is an heir to this approach and The Gun Seller is a worthy debut.

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