The Gun Seller

Somehow THE GUN SELLER is just what one might expect in a first novel by Hugh Laurie, the British actor who plays Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves in the P. G. Wodehouse classic JEEVES AND WOOSTER, frequently imported from the BBC for Masterpiece Theater. The book is a pastiche, not only of Wodehousean incongruity but of facets of other imitable literary staples—Kingsley Amis’s maladroit Jim Dixon, Ian Fleming’s always cool James Bond, and Raymond Chandler’s ever enmeshed Philip Marlowe.

Most Chandler clones begin with an offer the (anti)hero cannot refuse. Laurie’s Thomas Lang, who has learned to beat up people and give in to them as the script requires, goes against type, and thereby hangs this tale. Lang turns down $100,000 in an Amsterdam bar. He seizes his interlocutor beneath the table in Marquis-of-Queensbury-approved style and sets out to warn the contractee.

Lang’s gesture snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. He finds himself lost in a labyrinth of ambiguities that are the joint making of British Intelligence, who know all about his capers in Northern Ireland, the CIA, inevitably, and international arms dealers, suggestive of Iran-Contra. Of course the ambiguities win, but the book pales when Laurie tries to make loose ends meet.

Is Industrialist Alexander Woolf, who in Chandler’s heyday would have been played by Sidney Greenstreet, a honcho of the narcotics game or a good guy against arms traffic; should Lang resist Woolf’s daughter Sara, as Bogart did Mary Astor in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) or fall for her; is the 500 m.p.h. military helicopter to be used for good or evil; is Lang’s Special Branch pal from the old days telling the truth?

Only when Lang meets his ritual of fire(arms) and is shot in the armpit do the nerve ends justify the means. The foe slinks into convenient recognition: those bogey-men euphemistically called the military-industrial complex.