The Gun Seller: Book Review
The Gun Seller was written by Hugh Laurie and published in 1996. It is often described as one of the best comedy espionage novels ever written.
The Gun Seller: Logline
In 1990s London, an ex-soldier stumbles on a conspiracy, funded by a billionaire arms dealer, to stage a terrorist attack. Blackmailed into taking part in the plot, he has to decide what he is prepared to risk to thwart it.
The Gun Seller: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the early 1990s. In London, Thomas Lang, an ex-soldier, is approached by a man who asks him to assassinate an American businessman, Alexander Woolf. Lang refuses, then goes to Woolf’s house to warn him. At the house, he tangles with Woolf’s bodyguard and meets Woolf’s daughter, Sarah, who he is instantly smitten with.
After the fight, both British and American intelligence, contact Lang, telling him that Woolf is a drug dealer. Lang however discovers that the man who set up the hit was Alexander Woolf himself.
Woolf and Sarah meet Lang to explain. Woolf claims the assassination ploy was a test for Lang and he passed. He then outlines a conspiracy he has discovered to stage a false flag terrorist attack. The aim of the conspiracy is to provide an opportunity to demonstrate a new military helicopter. The demonstration of the helicopter’s effectiveness will bring increased sales and hence profits for its manufacturers and the middle men involved in selling it. Lang dismisses the story as fanciful.
Returning from the meeting, Lang is run off the road and kidnapped. He escapes after killing his captors, discovering Woolf dead in a nearby room. Lang starts to believe the conspiracy is real, especially when he learns that Sarah is now missing.
The CIA pick Lang up and take him to meet the billionaire arms dealer behind the conspiracy. The arms dealer explains that are two operations. Officially, the CIA is infiltrating the terrorist organisation to destroy it. In reality, the arms dealer is financing and controlling the terrorist group and manipulating the CIA. The arms dealer demonstrates his power by killing a CIA agent. He then tells Lang to join the terrorist group and help them carry out the attack, threatening Sarah’s life to force his compliance.
The CIA help Lang infiltrate the terrorist group. To set up the group as a threat before the main operation, they’re allowed to attempt to assassinate a Dutch politician…
Lang [blackout]shoots the politician, though the CIA have arranged for the target to wear body armour, so he survives. Back in London after the assassination, Lang bumps into Sarah, who is not a prisoner. She admits she is part of the conspiracy.[/blackout]
Lang and the terrorist group [blackout]seize the American embassy in Casablanca. The arms dealer arrives with Sarah, to make sure Lang carries out his part of the plot, but Lang manages to pull a gun on him and drag him into the embassy.[/blackout]
The arms dealer [blackout]is defiant, confident that he is so powerful that the helicopter will not be deployed while he is in the firing line. Lang reminds him that other powerful men still need the attack to go ahead. Lang is right, and the helicopter does attack, but Lang shoots it down with an anti-aircraft missile.[/blackout]
With [blackout]the helicopter shot down and Lang releasing footage of the arms dealer admitting he financed the terrorists, the conspiracy is thwarted, but in an ironic coda, Lang notes that since he demonstrated the effectiveness of the anti-aircraft missile its sales have doubled.[/blackout]
The Gun Seller: Analysis
Overall, The Gun Seller has a Playing Defence plot (see Spy Novel Plots) as Lang’s main concern is to thwart the plans of the Antagonist and he remains off-balance and reacting to events through most of the novel.
It also has elements of a Conspiracy plot (e.g. the CIA, being infiltrated by the Antagonists). The second half of the novel becomes much more of a Mission, though the Antagonist forces Lang into it. The Playing Defence comes back in at the end as Lang attempts to turn the tables on the Antagonist and they have a final confrontation.
I have to say, I was a little disappointed that the resolution of the story turned on a coincidence that pushes Lang and Sarah together again. As I said in my review of Six Days of the Condor, reliance on coincidence to keep the plot moving went out a long time ago.
The Gun Seller is not an out-and-out comedy. Unlike Spies Like Us, the plot is not just an excuse to string comic scenes together. It’s also not a satire like Our Man in Havana where much of the comedy comes from the ridiculousness of the situation the protagonist is in.
Instead, the humour comes from the sarcastic dialogue and sardonic statements of the protagonist, Lang, and this makes The Gun Seller seem like a light-hearted romp until Lang finally meets the arms-dealer who is behind the conspiracy. It then takes a turn in a darker direction with the murder of one of the CIA agents, which is brutal enough to jar the reader and have them questioning if the novel is a comedy at all.
After that, The Gun Seller seems to lapse back towards romp territory, though there is less humour and more thriller action from that point and the finale is played entirely straight.
Overall, I tended to find myself smiling rather than outright laughing – it’s a witty novel, not a hilarious one.
Characters are not the strong point of The Gun Seller. They are all a bit one-dimensional and undifferentiated – to the point that I wasn’t entirely sure which subsidiary character had turned up again at a couple of points. Lang is a pretty generic ‘tough ex-soldier with a moral code’ and the three love interests are not given enough time on the page to really establish themselves.
I found Hugh Laurie’s writing engaging and readable. It’s tidy and effective genre-style writing and there’s liberal usage of cliffhangers and twists, and that means the story gains plenty of momentum.
Reality: False Flag Attacks
A false flag attack is one carried out ostensibly by one organisation or country, but in reality by another in order to: create a pretext for war, justify repression, or for propaganda. There are many rumours about these kinds of attacks, but by their nature they are often hard to substantiate. One false flag attack that is undisputed is the ‘Gleiwitz incident’ where the Nazi SS, disguised as Poles, attacked a German radio station, to provide Hitler with a pretext for invading Poland.
The Gun Seller: My Verdict
Not so much a comedy, as a readable, witty thriller. You’ll enjoy it.
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