Book review: “The Gunseller”

There seems to be no end to the list of celebrities who’ve tried writing fiction: John Lithgow, Ethan Hawke, Britney Spears, Tyra Banks, Julianne Moore, James Franco, Gene Hackman, Nicole Richie, Lauren Graham, William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, Hilary Duff and Julie Andrews — to name a few.

But I doubt any will write a better novel than “The Gun Seller.”

Originally published in 1996, the dazzling thriller is, so far, the only work of fiction from actor Hugh Laurie.

Best known as the star of TV’s “House” (2004-2012), Laurie is something of a Renaissance man. Featured in more than two dozen movies (“101 Dalmatians,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Tomorrowland”), he holds three Golden Globes, plus two Screen Actors Guild awards and — in addition to a variety of stage work — he’s released two blues albums. (Laurie covers vocals, keyboards, guitar, drums, saxophone and harmonica.)

Critics and readers alike loved “Gun Seller,” and so did I.

This devilishly complex tale is narrated by former Scots Guard Thomas Lang, who somewhat inadvertently lurches into an international conspiracy involving terrorism, skiing, weapon sales, whisky, CNN, motorcycles, assassination, Casablanca, the CIA, kidnaping, high-speed helicopters, drug smuggling, a little bit of romance and a lot of menace from an enigmatic baddie with the delicious monicker Naimh Murdah.

Laurie knows exactly how much info to reveal and when; while his pell-mell plot can be tough to follow, it’s consistently gripping, with a conclusion so satisfying that it made me want to read the whole thing again.

Best of all is Laurie’s prose: polished, evocative and often very funny. If you can imagine Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse teaming up on a spy thriller, you might get something like “Gun Seller.” (Though, for the record, I don’t think the gentlemanly Wodehouse would include quite so many F-bombs.)

One surly superior is described as “enjoying the fact that he didn’t enjoy his work”; another, unwilling to shake Lang’s hand, eventually “offered me a limp wet thing with fingers on it.”

Meanwhile, CNN’s main agenda is “telling people who are watching CNN that what they really ought to be doing is watching CNN. Preferably in a different fine hotel to the one they’re staying in.”

Also: “Prague airport is slightly smaller than the sign which says ‘Prague Airport’. … The thumping Stalinist scale of it made me wonder whether the sign had been built before radio navigation, so that pilots could read it while still only halfway across the Atlantic.”

And one early opponent is “uglier than a car park, with a big, hairless skull that dipped and bulged like a balloon full of spanners, and his flattened, fighter’s nose, apparently drawn on his face by someone using their left hand, or perhaps even their left foot, spread out in a meandering, lopsided delta under the rough slab of his forehead.” This brute “could have swathed himself in shimmering silk and put an orchid behind each ear, and nervous passers-by would still have paid him money first and wondered afterwards whether they had owed him any.”

As long ago as 2009, Laurie penned a screenplay for “Gun Seller” and also announced a sequel, “The Paper Soldier” — but to date, neither the movie nor the follow-up has materialized.

Here’s one fan who’s hoping for both.

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