This week I’m going to review a little known novel known as The Gun Seller. I say little known because until about a month ago I had no idea that this novel existed, but one day I was browsing the A-Z fiction in a local bookstore and it caught my eye. In actual fact however, this book has been around since 1996. It’s over a decade old and I’d never heard anything about it, not even in passing.
The cover of the novel is quite plain. It’s not really all that eye catching, which is probably a shame since I’d imagine that the cover is what attracts most people to pick up a novel they’ve never read before. You can go too far and be tacky and garish but the only way that this novel really stood out was that in this genre all the novels seem to have dark colours this one was baby blue. A sweet and innocent colour given that the title of the novel is The Gun Seller. There was a sketch of a lady’s legs and one of the ‘L’s in the title had been cleverly replaced with a silhouette of a gun. Nothing fantastically spectacular. So what drew me to this book at all?
It was written by Hugh Laurie.
Yes, that Hugh Laurie. At first I thought it was just a happy coincidence until I saw the selling tag below the name, which read: ‘Star of the award winning TV series House.’ Obvious this edition had been republished after his success in the United States, but I genuinely found myself wondering if there is anything this man can’t do. He’s an actor, musician, director, comedian and now he’s a writer. I knew he had written some scripts and episodes, including a lot of his early work on A Bit of Fry and Laurie but the notion that he’d written prose had completely passed me by. Mostly because I thought if he’d have done anything like that I’d have heard about it.
After a little bit of research, I found that he originally submitted the manuscript to a publisher under a different name because he was wary of becoming another celebrity author. Many wish Katie Price had the same tact but alas, we’ve got to live with novels such as Sapphire and The Comeback Girl. Laurie apparently only agreed to give his name to the manuscript after it had already been accepted for publication on the standard of writing alone. Being assured the writing was up to scratch, he revealed he was behind the project for the sake of publicity and marketing. Though you’ve got to wonder how well that worked out when the book was released in 1996 and has been relatively unmentioned, despite his recent success since 2004.
So maybe the writing isn’t up to scratch and its Laurie’s old shame that he’d like to never think about? Well, that isn’t the case either. It’s perfectly humorous. Although I will say this, it feels like it was written by Laurie. It’s got that kind of sardonic humour running right through the narration, posh little asides about the right way to do things in England and some clever word play and turnabout. I don’t know if I’d have felt the same if I hadn’t known the novel was written by him, but knowing who the author was made it a lot easier to identify areas where I can see his personality influence the style and tone of the text. I don’t think this detracts from the reading of the novel either, since if you read enough of any writer, whether it’s William Shakespeare or Steven King, you’ll pick on techniques that are prevalent through their work. The same is true of directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s usage of a Macguffin in the plot or Quentin Tarantino’s tendency to include shots of feet. If you see it in one film or one book, it doesn’t make it less significant when you see it again. It’s just like a stamp of recognition, sort of like a signature.
So how does the story go? Well, it’s the age old story of a mercenary for hire meeting up with the boss of a secret agent organisation and a terrible conspiracy where war will be used to generate money. However, the organisation is actually the nefarious bunch and it’s the crazy billionaire conspiracy theorist that’s on the good side. Of course, he doesn’t live long and the main character is roped into joining a terrorist organisation as a double agent. Though, he ends up as a triple agent, working on behalf of the world. While it might sound like a subpar James Bond movie, it’s really more of a spoof. The main character, Thomas Lang, is anything but savvy. He’s good with a gun and likes to make sarcastic comments are he comes across more like the socially awkward kid making dark jokes to ease the increasing tension rather than charismatic or charming. It does work for him though. This technique does win him at least three women in the course of the novel it seems.
That’s not to say that the story is a modern day classic. It does suffer from overloading the story with characters. Maybe it’s an extension of the spoof but it felt unnecessary. The first member of the organisation meets with another guy who’s much higher up in the whole conspiracy but then it turns out that even he has a boss who controls everything. When it comes down to the end, we learn that he’s only one of twenty six that get a vote on what happens. I mean, that’s a sight more realistic than one evil dictator and the vote thing is a part of the ending gambit to wrestle control from the corrupt corporate arms dealers, but it can be distracting. The action switches over from the conspiracy to the terrorist organisation about two thirds of the way through, at which point I’ve stopped caring who’s working for whom. Cutting back on characters would have made the whole thing read a lot better.
Another criticism I could make is that The Gun Seller doesn’t really work as a title. There’s some word play with the title near the end but I felt let down. Thomas Lang really is more of a gun for hire kinda guy. The title might be referring to the corrupt arms dealers but they’re selling a helicopter, and it feels more like a marketing strategy rather than sales pitch. This doesn’t really affect the overall story but it just feels like the title of the novel could have been stronger.
There is actually a sequel called The Paper Soldier but it’s never been released and there’s some dispute as to whether it’s actually finished yet. The date of release was 2009 but obviously it didn’t get published so we can only really guess what might come of that. But my wonderful girlfriend bought me a copy of The Gun Seller for Valentine’s, among other things, and while it’s not the best written novel of the century it is very entertaining. I would recommend anyone give it a read if they’re into spy or comedy literature, or if they’re like me and they just want be immersed in the work of Hugh Laurie a little more.