Fiction: “The Gun Seller” by Hugh Laurie

Gun SellerThe Gun Seller was one of the first novels I ever reviewed for this blog, way back when in the winter of – holy shit, 2009?! I’ve been doing this for five years? No one told me I’ve been doing this for five years.

This is the part where I’d normally say something like “I’ve done a lot of growing up since this site’s inception,” or, “Looking back, I was quite the neophyte at this whole reviewing thing,” but let’s be real: in many cases, I am still the same person I was five years ago. I still routinely have to bribe myself with ice cream as a reward for cleaning the bathroom, I still have problems waking up in the morning, and I still have not learned a damned thing when it comes to being a reviewer of books. I still enter into every single one of these reviews the same way Indiana Jones follows the Ark of the Covenant into Cairo: I’m basically making this up as I go.

Back in 2009, when I read this book for the first time, I loved it. And then I spent nearly the entirety of that first review talking about how much I loved Hugh Laurie and used only a single paragraph (or maybe two, tops) to discuss the plot of the book. Then I lent my copy of the book to my at-the-time supervisor, as she also loved to read. And I never saw it again. (Thank god I never lent her my copy of Gilligan’s Wake; I would have cried.)

Flash-forward to earlier this year, when I found a copy at Bull Moose, my local store of awesome (primarily a music store, some branches now sell books). The only thing that would have been even more amazing than finding copy would have been if I had found my original copy, but sadly, it was not meant to be. (But imagine the movie that would be – a book who missed its owner so much it managed to find its way back to her … through her local bookstore.) But regardless, a copy of The Gun Seller had found its way back into my personal library.

I finally cracked it open about a month ago – because yes, I am again a month and three reviews behind. HAVE I MENTIONED I HAVE HAD NO GROWTH IN FIVE YEARS. This will be my attempt to do the book justice, as well as an introduction to this book for those of you who weren’t around this here site five years ago.

The narrator is Thomas Lang, an ex-British-military type, who has now joined the ranks of freelancedom. We meet Lang in the middle of a mission, ostensibly – he is trying to extricate himself from the hold of a particularly burly assassin. He manages to break free and prevent a murder from happening, but the next day gets called into the Ministry of Defense. See, there was a report that Lang was actually the assassin, hired to off one Alexander Woolf, an American tycoon.

Lang remembers being approached by a shadowy type in Amsterdam, who asked him to assassinate Woolf for a large sum of money. Lang also remembers turning the offer down flat. For our narrator is one who operates solely on the side of ‘good,’ and won’t take wetworks jobs, no matter how well in cigarettes and Scotch the job will keep him. Lang eventually figures out someone framed him – approached him in Amsterdam to make it look like he took the job, then when Lang tried to stop the attack on the very individual he was supposed to assassinate, it looked even worse. What really throws the whole situation into overdrive is that, at first sight, Lang fell in love with Woolf’s daughter, Sarah.

Lang tries to figure out who framed him and why, and stumbles into a plot that reaches as far across the Atlantic as New York City, and as far south as Casablanca. The framing of Lang, the assassination attempt on Woolf – they’ve all been put in place in a grandiose endeavor to sell a new weapon: the frontrunner of today’s drone.

(Keep in mind, this book was written in the late 1990s.)

He tries to get himself out of this plot, but instead, is forced to join a terrorist group in an effort to “save Sarah.”  (Spoiler alert: Sarah doesn’t really need saving. But when you cross James Bond with Philip Marlowe, you have to know the first femme you meet is going to end up on the fatale side of things.)

Here’s what I love about this book: Hugh Laurie has an amazing way with words. Amazing. I know in my first review of this book, I wrote about how I just wanted to be friends with Hugh Laurie, because he seemed like a really cool dude – someone you could hang in the pub and have a pint with. But now I want to be friends with Hugh Laurie because he is an amazing writer.

While I love that Hugh Laurie is currently touring the world with his Copper Bottom Band, I kind of want him to write a sequel to The Gun Seller. Because my earlier, five-years-ago point still stands: while I feel I learned a lot more about Thomas Lang this time around, and truly appreciated his ability to mask his innermost thoughts under an impressive veil of sarcasm, I really want to spend more time with him as a character; hang around in a pub and have a pint with Lang, not just Laurie.

Here are some examples of Thomas Lang’s personality:

But I’ve always prided myself on the froidness of my sang … [p. 44]

Another Diplomat was parked behind us, with whatever the collective noun for Carls is inside it. A neck of Carls, maybe. [p. 156]

(Lang is always figuring out creative ways to describe people. See my previous review and how he names one of his bodyguards (a.k.a., one of the Carls) Sunglasses and the other No Sunglasses.)

“Who pulls the trigger?”

Solomon had to wait for an answer.

In fact he had to wait for every answer, because I was on a skating-rink, skating, and he wasn’t. It took me roughly thirty seconds to complete a circuit and drop off a reply, so I had lots of scope to be irritating. Not that I need lots of scope, you understand. Give me just an eency-weency bit of scope, and I’ll madden you to death. [p. 228]

There’s a really interesting section around page 150 or so, where the Americans are working damned hard to convince Lang to join up with their team, and it speaks about democracy and what it is and what it’s really made up of, and I’d quote the whole thing here but it would be a lot of extra typing, and I feel I did that already last week at my real job where I transcribed a bunch of invoices into an Excel spreadsheet because, as far as I know, there’s no way to email a .pdf of an image to oneself and then parse the information into Excel without actually retyping it all.  (If there is, please, for the love of god, don’t tell me – I really don’t want to know at this point.) Basically you should read the book and enjoy that section, but I’ll give you at least one paragraph (I should clarify, this is from the perspective of the American character):

“The people don’t read books. The people don’t care a piece of blue shit about philosophy. All the people care about, all they want from their government, is a wage that keeps getting higher and higher. Year in, year out, they want that wage going up. It ever stops, they get themselves a new government. That’s what the people want. It’s all they’ve ever wanted. That, my friend, is democracy.” [p. 162]

Before I really get into Hugh Laurie and his Way With Words, let’s play the All About Alaina game for a second:

“Anything wrong with ringing my headmaster?” I said. “Or an ex-girlfriend?” I mean, that all seemed too dull, I supposed.

Woolf shook his head.

“Not at all,” he said. “I did all of that.”

That was a shock. A real shock. I still get hot flushes about having cheated in Chemistry O-Level and scoring an A when experienced teachers had anticipated an F. I know one day it’s going to come out. I just know it. [p. 83]

Seriously, I never cheated on an exam, but for some reason I have the guiltiest personality. For instance, I was at work and a coworker was looking for me while I was refilling my glass of water, and when my cubicle-mate told me, my first instinct was to say, “What did I do?” I can’t imagine the guilt Lang feels about a cheated exam.

Here’s one of the techniques one of the Americans uses in trying to convince Lang to help them sell their drone copter:

“If you are making a new mousetrap, then, as you say, you advertise it as a new mousetrap. If, on the other hand,” he held out his other hand, to show me what another hand looked like, “you are trying to sell a snake trap, then your first task is to demonstrate why snakes are bad things. Why they need to be trapped. Do you follow me? Then, much, much later, you come along with your product.” [p. 171]

THERE IS NO NEED FOR DEMONSTRATION. I DON’T CARE HOW MANY BUGS AND OTHER PARTS OF THE ECOSYSTEM SNAKES EAT, THEY ARE BAD AND THEY WILL ALWAYS BE BAD HOW MANY SNAKE TRAPS CAN I BUY EVEN THOUGH I HAVE NEVER SEEN A SNAKE OUTSIDE OF A ZOO

Finally, if you need some more proof that Hugh Laurie is a master wordsmith, I’d like to share the following three quotes:

There’s an undeniable pleasure in stepping into an open-top sports car driven by a beautiful woman. It feels like you’re climbing into a metaphor. [p. 133]

Okay, that one was just funny.

It was dark outside, cold and dark, and it was trying to rain in a feeble, oh-I-can’t-really-be-bothered-with-this sort of a way. [p. 217]

Admit it; you know exactly how it’s raining in that moment.

And finally:

People talk about nightfall, or night falling, or dusk falling, and it’s never seemed right to me. Perhaps they once meant befalling. As in night befalls. As in night happens. Perhaps they, whoever they were, thought of a falling sun. That might be it, except that that ought to give us dayfall. Day fell on Rupert the Bear. And we know, if we’ve ever read a book that day doesn’t fall or rise. It breaks. In books, day breaks, and night falls.

In life, night rises from the ground. The day hangs on for as long as it can, bright and eager, absolutely and positively the last guest to leave the party, while the ground darkens, oozing night around your ankles, swallowing for ever that dropped contact lens, making you miss that low catch in the gully on the last ball of the last over. [p. 279]

Grade for The Gun Seller: 5 stars

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