This book has been on my to-read list for ages. Adding it was as simple as, “Hugh Laurie wrote a novel? Sold!” The fact that it’s a novel about a British ex-military freelancer trying to prevent the assassination of the American businessman he was hired to kill … well, that’s just a bonus. Some books keep their wit bottled up and dole it out carefully over the course of the story. The Gun Seller isn’t like that: from the very first page, Laurie makes it clear that this is a tongue-in-cheek, semi-absurd story that leverages the best of the dry humour I appreciate in my British comedy.
Thomas Lang is a hired gun—though for what, Laurie never bothers to make clear. I can’t imagine it would be for killing people, since he says that he doesn’t do that sort of thing. That’s why he chooses to warn Alexander Woolf instead of undertake Woolf’s assassination. This beneficent act puts Lang on the hit list of such luminaries as the Ministry of Defence, the CIA, and private arms contractors. Lang finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that, by the standards of 2013, is laughably straightforward and banal. I imagine that in the pre–Iraq War, pre-9/11 world of 1996, however, it seemed amazingly complicated and incredible.
As with any book in this vein of comedy, two things make it awesome: characters and voice. Laurie has both down. Thomas Lang, as the main character and narrator, is a quip-filled fellow with a surprisingly optimistic view of the universe. He loves observing other people, especially when he has just finished making them uncomfortable. And he has gall. He will lie through his teeth to make a plan work, and when the plan goes pear-shaped—which it inevitably does—he will just roll with the punches until he finds a way to get another lucky break.
If it were just Thomas, The Gun Seller would be a good novel. But Laurie puts that extra effort in to create a comprehensive cast of comedic characters. Solomon, Thomas’s sometimes assistant, is a combination of a sardonic butler and handler. His boss, O’Neal, is a delightfully slimy bureaucrat who enjoys trading barbs with Thomas. And there are both British and American antagonists, and Laurie does a good job differentiating between the two in terms of attitude, behaviour, and dialogue.
Thomas Lang’s voice is an even more compelling component than the characters. Laurie reveals himself as a writer with a skilled command of the English language. His descriptions, allusions, and metaphors are second to none. I love this line: “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.” Reading The Gun Seller is a funny experience on par with Douglas Adams, Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, or Laurie’s own favourite, P.G. Wodehouse. The wry descriptions that are hallmarks of such authors are present here, interspersed with periods of intense, staccato action.
While reading The Gun Seller, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Hitman Diaries. The two books are superficially similar, both humorous attempts to explore the world of contract killing. The latter, in my opinion, falls down because it tries too hard to be a love story in addition to all the other things it does well. The Gun Seller avoids this pitfall—this isn’t really a love story, despite the appearance to the contrary at the first.
Indeed, what most impressed me about this book was its unpredictability. There are plenty of twists that I didn’t see coming—and considering the rather simple nature of the plot and the conflict, that’s no small feat. I can read any number of books with this type of dry humour, but few of them will be able to keep me hooked as Thomas careens from one type of danger to the next. I certainly didn’t see the plot developing the way it did, branching out from assassination to international terrorism and hostage crises in the Middle East.
It might be strange to call The Gun Seller “cute” considering the subject matter, but it kind of is. It’s a delightful little package of a novel: slick and funny and fun, and on top of that a good story with a great main character. I’d read a sequel at the drop of a hat, but until such a thing materializes, I will have to content myself with the fond memories this book has created. Oh, and recommend it to a whole bunch of like-minded fans of dry British humour.