The Gun Seller

In a bookshop on the Champs Élysées last year there was a massive, wall-wide display of Tout Est Sous ContrĂ´le by, according to the big signs, Doctor House. It turns out the French really love Hugh Laurie. Yes, this Hugh Laurie:

The sight of all those books didn’t make me pull The Gun Seller off my to be read shelf any quicker, I’m afraid. In the end it formed half of a thriller read along with Blood Hunt. Amusingly, both novels feature a former military type who uncovers a corporate conspiracy that has led to murder. The difference is in the tone.

The Gun Seller
Hugh Laurie
(Mandarin 1997 – link above goes to the 2004 Arrow edition)

Thomas Lang is a former Scots Guard Captain, now fallen on rather tight times. Someone offers him a lot of money to kill an American businessman. He declines but, thinking someone else has taken up the contract, he tries to warn the target and ends up being dragged into a global conspiracy by the military-industrial complex.

The conspiracy plot is fairly standard, involving various secretive government organisations, arms dealers, terrorists etc. Where The Gun Seller shines is in the details. One character is described as wearing a brown sensible jacket bought from the back pages of the Telegraph magazine. As well as making you laugh at the incongruity, it also provides a lovely character tell. An observation that British security guards would not stop strangers entering a government building “because it would be just too embarrassing” is both funny and sets up the difference between the British and American secret services.

The Gun Seller is in first person past tense, which means we know Lang will survive but also means there’s a strong narrative voice. It’s very hard to separate this from the ‘upper class twit of the year’ persona Laurie used to play on back in the day. Lang digresses, he rambles at moments when you really might expect him to be concentrating, and he generally reacts to unfairness. He’s heroic, without acting like a hero.

Despite the tense and voice, the situations Lang has to deal with are unpleasant and ugly so that you do actually worry that this charming chancer is not going to survive. That’s a really good trick to pull off.

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