On the case and on the job

The Gun Seller

Hugh Laurie's only foray into prose, if you don't count narrating Great Expectations, is a luridly-jacketed novel that looks like it's by Irvine Welsh or Michael Ridpath or some other triumph of packaging. In truth it's a sprawling spy novel whose comedy would, in the hands of anyone else, turn ironic and varnished. Laurie manages to keep up the self-effacing shtick throughout, however, and as with many debuts this book's narrator has more than a sliver of the author running through him.

The retired Captain Thomas Lang is propositioned by a stranger in an Amsterdam bar to assassinate an American millionaire. Declining the offer---while holding the stranger's most intimates in a vice-like grip---he races to warn the millionaire of the contract out on his life. Time and time again he makes the wrong deduction, leading him further into the twists of an international conspiracy to organize a terrorist attack and boost the sales of the new helicopter that will be on hand to neutralize the terrorists. This apparently ludicrous plot is made easy to swallow by the method of drip-feeding inconsequentials early on, more in the manner of Agatha Christie than Jack Higgins.

The story is told in a relaxed, somewhat bemused style, lapsing into the self-assurance of the trained unarmed combatant only when really valid: Thomas Lang is no detective, and no plot devices are needed to transform him into one. The strength of this book lies in its warts-and-all presentation of the central character: like James Bond taking a break from bashing the Blofeld because he really needs a wee, or a cup of tea. Such humanity is refreshing.

Occasionally Laurie's relaxed style becomes practically horizontal. He makes slips of style and falls back on standard Fry-and-Laurie-isms, including the over-quoted "x, if you will, y." In this he's as guilty as his erstwhile partner, who often coasts through sections of his books (much of The Star's Tennis Balls being a case in point) on the strength of his character. Both authors often give the impression of presenting you with a rambling story told unedited to the reader, by the author, at a party or down the phone. But whereas Stephen Fry's slips come across as pompous, Hugh Laurie is relentlessly apologetic. Whichever the reader can stomach most is a matter of taste, but it seems a shame that, when unguarded, both of them are so very true to type.