The Gun Seller

( 81 )

Overview

Thomas Lang used to be an officer of the Scots Guard, now he is unemployed and drifting. The only commodity he has to sell is himself. But when he is offered a contract to murder a wealthy businessman he politely declines. He goes to warn the target, is attacked by a tough already on the premises and defends himself. When the most beautiful girl he's ever seen appears, he tells her a series of lies. And in no time, Lang, who would rather be riding his Kawasaki ZZR 1100, finds himself caught up in international ...
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The Gun Seller

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Overview

Thomas Lang used to be an officer of the Scots Guard, now he is unemployed and drifting. The only commodity he has to sell is himself. But when he is offered a contract to murder a wealthy businessman he politely declines. He goes to warn the target, is attacked by a tough already on the premises and defends himself. When the most beautiful girl he's ever seen appears, he tells her a series of lies. And in no time, Lang, who would rather be riding his Kawasaki ZZR 1100, finds himself caught up in international intrigue, spying, violence, murder...and love. Lang seems helpless, but confronted by the minions of the British Secret Service, the CIA and assorted local and international villains, he manages singlehandedly to orchestrate a high adrenaline caper involving a prototype military helicopter capable of going 500 miles per hour, a sinister arms dealer, international terrorists, beautiful girls and just enough sex.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review Christopher Buckley
"A genuinely witty and sophisticated entertainment...fresh and winning."
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
"A first-rate thriller...an awesome entertainment machine...a smashing book."
The Washington Post Book Review
"The Gun Seller is fast, topical, wry, suspenseful, hilarious, witty, surprising, ridiculous, and pretty wonderful.
And you don't need a permit to buy it...A delightful novel."
From the Publisher
"A genuinely witty and sophisticated entertainment...fresh and winning."

"A first-rate thriller...an awesome entertainment machine...a smashing book."

"The Gun Seller is fast, topical, wry, suspenseful, hilarious, witty, surprising, ridiculous, and pretty wonderful.

And you don't need a permit to buy it...A delightful novel."

"[A] ripping spoof of the spy genre"

Washington Post Book World
Fast, topical, wry, suspenseful, hilarious, witty, surprising, ridiculous. . . .A delightful novel.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his debut as a thriller writer, the longstanding partner of British comedian Stephen Fry treats the genre of John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Frederick Forsythe with as much reverence as Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did science fiction. His blend of comedy and suspense has some truly hilarious moments. The hero, Thomas Lang, an ex-officer of the Scots Guards now aimlessly drifting between dead-end jobs, is such a decent bloke that he not only turns down a 50,000 hit job but also warns its intended victim, the CEO of an interior decorating firm, who turns out to be its originator. At the heart of a plot so twisted that it risks spraining itself is an arms-selling conspiracy beyond Ollie North's wildest schemes, involving renegade CIA agents and the U.S. military-industrial complex. Though this scenario flags once Lang has untangled it, culminating in a staged hostage crisis that shows off an anti-terrorist helicopter, Laurie's droll patter enlivens Lang's bemused narration throughout. Besides motorcycle chases, unarmed combat and sharpshooting, Lang wittily fetishizes weaponry and personal injury. As a good Brit, however, he is terribly, terribly reticent about sex ("When it comes to sex, it seems to me, men really are caught between a rock and a soft, limp, apologetic place.").
Library Journal
Thomas Lang is not exactly James Bond. He has military training and has done some bodyguard work, but on the whole he doesn't care to work too hard. When he is offered a contract on the life of a wealthy London businessman, not only does he turn down the offer, but he attempts to warn the "target" of his danger. This embroils him in a wild plot involving a notorious arms dealer, renegade CIA bigwigs, and a prototype for a military helicopter. There is mystery, intrigue, sex, and violence, all of which Lang tosses off with sarcastic wit and remarkable poise. Laurie's humor hits home. Although the subject is serious, even plausible, much of this comedy-thriller is laugh-out-loud funny and very readable. -- Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence
Library Journal
Thomas Lang is not exactly James Bond. He has military training and has done some bodyguard work, but on the whole he doesn't care to work too hard. When he is offered a contract on the life of a wealthy London businessman, not only does he turn down the offer, but he attempts to warn the "target" of his danger. This embroils him in a wild plot involving a notorious arms dealer, renegade CIA bigwigs, and a prototype for a military helicopter. There is mystery, intrigue, sex, and violence, all of which Lang tosses off with sarcastic wit and remarkable poise. Laurie's humor hits home. Although the subject is serious, even plausible, much of this comedy-thriller is laugh-out-loud funny and very readable. -- Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence
School Library Journal
A delightful first novel by the British actor, comedian, and author of the television series "A Bit of Fry and Laurie." In this spoof (of sorts) of the spy genre, Laurie's appealing turns of phrase will grab readers from the first paragraph. Thomas Lang, formerly of the Scots Guard and currently a freelance bodyguard/man for hire, is offered an assassination job. He indignantly refuses, attempts to warn the victim, and is soon embroiled in undercover work for the British government, CIA operatives, arms dealers, and terrorists. Those who enjoy action or spy novels will be swept along in the events. Although somewhat convoluted, the plot is so punctuated with bursts of sly humor that readers won't mind a bit of confusion. The author pokes gentle, good-natured fun at the foibles and characteristics of British and Americans alike, as well as his hero, bureaucrats, terrorists, diplomats, and just about everyone else. In a tone reminiscent of Lawrence Sanders's "McNally" series (Putnam), the light, frothy humor is infectious. A quick read, with an engaging, capable hero and lots of plot twists, for YAs looking for something pleasantly different. -- Carol DeAngelo, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Washington Post Book World
Fast, topical, wry, suspenseful, hilarious, witty, surprising, ridiculous. . . .A delightful novel.
Christopher Buckley
...[A] genuinely witty and sophisticated entertainment. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
It's no surprise that this fey first novel from British TV comedian/writer Laurie ('Jeeves and Wooster') should feature an updated Bertie Wooster pitched headlong into international intrigue, terrorism, and really embarrassing scrapes. Thomas Lang's an inoffensive sort who hasn't done much since mustering out of the Scots Guards. One day, apropos of nothing in particular, a Canadian arms-dealer offers him $100,000 to assassinate industrialist Alexander Woolf. Not wanting either the money or the opprobrium of having kept quiet about it, Thomas hies himself to Woolf's house, where he finds—not Woolf, but a minder who tries to break his arm, and Woolf's well-armed daughter Sarah, who could easily break his heart. Worse, after Thomas is taken in and questioned minutely, yet ineffectually, by the Ministry of Defense, he realizes that the Canadian power broker who set him up was none other than Woolf himself. It's only the first act in a farcical series of adventures that will have Thomas changing his name and cover story more often than most readers change their bedclothes, as he careens from the American Embassy in London to a terrorist cell in Switzerland to a climactic bit of derring-do with a killer helicopter over Casablanca, playing by turns Sarah's solicitous protector, Woolf's avenger, and a Minnesota adjunct terrorist who has to prove his loyalty to The Sword of Justice by killing a Dutch finance minister. Throughout all this balderdash—as Thomas goes through all of James Bond's paces (unarmed combat, ritualistic double-crosses, soft-focus sex with Third World terrorists)—the jokes are reliably funny; but since the premise and its development are nowhere moreoutrageous than in straight-faced examples of the genre, the japery eventually grows monotonous. Still, every episode is awash with giggles, even if the whole production seems directed at audiences who think 'Get Smart' would have worked better as a six-hour BBC series.
The Washington Post Book World
“Fast, topical, wry, suspenseful, hilarious, witty, surprising, ridiculous and pretty wonderful. And you don't need a permit to buy it.”
The Washington Post Book World
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A first-rate thriller . . . an awesome entertainment machine.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Vanity Fair
“[A] ripping spoof of the spy genre.”
Vanity Fair
Audiobooks Today
“With a delicious taste for dialogue, Laurie reveals the jet-fueled imagination that has propelled his inimitable interpretations of characters on television. For all fans of the offbeat.”
Audiobooks Today
Shelf Awareness
“A hilarious, bumbling caper that will have listeners driving an extra time around the block to hear just a little more.”
Shelf Awareness
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671020828
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/1998
  • Edition description: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 358,863
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;

P. S. Stewart

Imagine that you have to break someone's arm.

Right or left, doesn't matter. The point is that you have to break it, because if you don't...well, that doesn't matter either. Let's just say bad things will happen if you don't.

Now, my question goes like this: do you break the arm quickly — snap, whoops, sorry, here let me help you with that improvised splint — or do you drag the whole business out for a good eight minutes, every now and then increasing the pressure in the tiniest of increments, until the pain becomes pink and green and hot and cold and altogether howlingly unbearable?

Well exactly. Of course. The right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Break the arm, ply the brandy, be a good citizen. There can be no other answer.

Unless.

Unless unless unless.

What if you were to hate the person on the other end of the arm? I mean really, really hate them.

This was a thing I now had to consider.

I say now, meaning then, meaning the moment I am describing; the moment fractionally, oh so bloody fractionally, before my wrist reached the back of my neck and my left humerus broke into at least two, very possibly more, floppily joined-together pieces.

The arm we've been discussing, you see, is mine. It's not an abstract, philosopher's arm. The bone, the skin, the hairs, the small white scar on the point of the elbow, won from the corner of a storage heater at Gateshill Primary School — they all belong to me. And now is the moment when I must consider the possibility that the man standing behind me, gripping my wrist and driving it up my spine with an almost sexual degree of care, hates me. I mean, really, really hates me.

He is taking for ever.

His name was Rayner. First name unknown. By me, at any rate, and therefore, presumably, by you too.

I suppose someone, somewhere, must have known his first name — must have baptised him with it, called him down to breakfast with it, taught him how to spell it — and someone else must have shouted it across a bar with an offer of a drink, or murmured it during sex, or written it in a box on a life insurance application form. I know they must have done all these things. Just hard to picture, that's all.

Rayner, I estimated, was ten years older than me. Which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I have good, warm, non-arm-breaking relationships with plenty of people who are ten years older than me. People who are ten years older than me are, by and large, admirable. But Rayner was also three inches taller than me, four stones heavier, and at least eight however-you-measure-violence units more violent. He was 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.

And God Almighty, what a forehead. Bricks, knives, bottles and reasoned arguments had, in their time, bounced harmlessly off this massive frontal plane, leaving only the feeblest indentations between its deep, widely-spaced pores. They were, I think, the deepest and most widely-spaced pores I have ever seen in human skin, so that I found myself thinking back to the council putting-green in Dalbeattie, at the end of the long, dry summer of '76.

Moving now to the side elevation, we find that Rayner's ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking 'oh, it's an ear'.

And on top of all this, in case you hadn't got the message, Rayner wore a black leather jacket over a black polo-neck.

But of course you would have got the message. Rayner 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 it happened, I didn't owe him money. Rayner belonged to that select group of people to whom I didn't owe anything at all, and if things had been going a little better between us, I might have suggested that he and his fellows have a special tie struck, to signify membership. A motif of crossed paths, perhaps.

But, as I said, things weren't going well between us.

A one-armed combat instructor called Cliff (yes, I know — he taught unarmed combat, and he only had one arm — very occasionally life is like that) once told me that pain was a thing you did to yourself. Other people did things to you — they hit you, or stabbed you, or tried to break your arm — but
pain was of your own making. Therefore, said Cliff, who had spent a fortnight in Japan and so felt entitled to unload dogshit of this sort on his eager charges, it was always within your power to stop your own pain. Cliff was killed in a pub brawl three months later by a fifty-five-year-old widow, so I don't suppose I'll ever have a chance to set him straight.

Pain is an event. It happens to you, and you deal with it in whatever way you can.

The only thing in my favour was that, so far, I hadn't made any noise.

Nothing to do with bravery, you understand, I simply hadn't got round to it. Up until this moment, Rayner and I had been pinging off the walls and furniture in a sweatily male silence, with only the occasional grunt to show that we were both still concentrating. But now, with not much more than five seconds to go before I passed out or the bone finally gave way — now was the ideal moment to introduce a new element. And sound was all I could think of.

So I inhaled deeply through my nose, straightened up to get as close as I could to his face, held the breath for a moment, and then let out what Japanese martial artists refer to as a kiai — you'd probably call it a very loud noise, and that wouldn't be so far off — a scream of such blinding, shocking, what-the-fuck-was-that intensity, that I frightened myself quite badly.

On Rayner, the effect was pretty much as advertised, because he shifted involuntarily to one side, easing the grip on my arm for about a twelfth of a second. I threw my head back into his face as hard as I could, feeling the gristle in his nose adjust itself around the shape of my skull and a silky wetness spreading across my scalp, then brought my heel up towards his groin, scraping the inside of his thigh before connecting with an impressive bundle of genitalia. By the time the twelfth of a second had elapsed, Rayner was no longer breaking my arm, and I was aware, suddenly, of being drenched in sweat.

I backed away from him, dancing on my toes like a very old St. Bernard, and looked around for a weapon.

The venue for this pro-am contest of one fifteen-minute round was a small, inelegantly furnished sitting-room in Belgravia. The interior designer had done a perfectly horrible job, as all interior designers do, every single time, without fail, no exceptions — but at that moment his or her liking for heavy, portable objets happened to coincide with mine. I selected an eighteen-inch Buddha from the mantelpiece with my good arm, and found that the little fellow's ears afforded a satisfyingly snug grip for the one-handed player.

Rayner was kneeling now, vomiting on a Chinese carpet and improving its colour no end. I chose my spot, braced myself, and swung at him back-handed, plugging the corner of the Buddha's plinth into the soft space behind his left ear, There was a dull, flat noise, of the kind that only human tissue under attack can make, and he rolled over on to his side.

I didn't bother to see whether he was still alive. Callous, perhaps, but there you go.

I wiped some of the sweat from my face and walked through into the hall. I tried to listen, but if there was any sound from the house or from the street outside I would never have heard it, because my heart was going like a road drill. Or perhaps there really was a road drill outside. I was too busy sucking in great suitcase-sized chunks of air to notice.

I opened the front door and immediately felt cool drizzle on my face. It mingled with the sweat, diluting it, diluting the pain in my arm, diluting everything, and I closed my eyes and let it fall. It was one of the nicest things I've ever experienced. You may say that it's a pretty poor life I've been leading. But then, you see, context is everything.

I left the door on the latch, stepped down on to the pavement and lit a cigarette. Gradually, grumpily, my heart sorted itself out, and my breathing followed at a distance. The pain in my arm was terrible, and I knew it would be with me for days, if not weeks, but at least it wasn't my smoking arm.

I went back into the house and saw that Rayner was where I'd left him, lying in a pool of vomit. He was dead, or he was grievously-bodily-harmed, either of which meant at least five years. Ten, with time added on for bad behaviour. And this, from my point of view, was bad.

I've been in prison, you see. Only three weeks, and only on remand, but when you've had to play chess twice a day with a monosyllabic West Ham supporter, who has 'HATE' tattooed on one hand, and 'HATE' on the other — using a set missing six pawns, all the rooks and two of the bishops — you find yourself cherishing the little things in life. Like not being in prison.

I was contemplating these and related matters, and starting to think of all the hot countries I'd never got around to visiting, when I realised that that noise — that soft, creaking, shuffling, scraping noise — was definitely not coming from my heart. Nor from my lungs, nor from any other part of my yelping body. That noise was definitely external.

Someone, or something, was making an utterly hopeless job of coming down the stairs quietly.

I left the Buddha where it was, picked up a hideous alabaster table lighter and moved towards the door, which was also hideous. How can one make a hideous door? you may ask. Well, it takes some doing, certainly, but believe me, the top interior designers can knock off this kind of thing before breakfast.

I tried to hold my breath and couldn't, so I waited noisily. A light switch flicked on somewhere, waited, then flicked off. A door opened, pause, nothing there either, closed. Stand still. Think. Try the sitting-room.

There was a rustle of clothing, a soft footfall, and then suddenly I found I was relaxing my grip on the alabaster lighter, and leaning back against the wall in something close to relief. Because even in my frightened, wounded state, I was ready to stake my life on the fact that Nina Ricci's Fleur de Fleurs is just not a fighting scent.

She stopped in the doorway and looked around the room. The lights were out, but the curtains were wide open and there was plenty of light coming in from the street.

I waited until her gaze fell on Rayner's body before I put my hand over her mouth.

We went through all the usual exchanges dictated by Hollywood and polite society. She tried to scream and bite the palm of my hand, and I told her to be quiet because I wasn't going to hurt her unless she shouted. She shouted and I hurt her. Pretty standard stuff, really.

By and by she was sitting on the hideous sofa with half a pint of what I thought was brandy but turned out to be Calvados, and I was standing by the door wearing my smartest and best 'I am psychiatrically A1' expression.

I'd rolled Rayner on to his side, into a kind of recovery position, to stop him from choking on his own vomit. Or anyone else's, if it came to that. She'd wanted to get up and fiddle with him, to see if he was all right — pillows, damp cloths, bandages, all the things that help to make the bystander feel better — but I told her to stay where she was because I'd already called an ambulance, and all in all it would be better to leave him alone.

She had started to tremble slightly. It started in the hands, as they clutched the glass, then moved to her elbows and up to her shoulders, and it got worse every time she looked at Rayner. Of course, trembling is probably not an uncommon reaction to discovering a mixture of dead person and vomit on your carpet in the middle of the night, but I didn't want her getting any worse. As I lit a cigarette with the alabaster lighter — and yes, even the flame was hideous — I tried to take in as much information as I could before the Calvados booted her up and she started asking questions.

I could see her face three times in that room: once in a silver-framed photograph on the mantelpiece, with her in Ray Bans, dangling from a ski-lift; once in a huge and terrible oil portrait, done by someone who can't have liked her all that much, hanging by the window; and finally, and definitely the best of all, in a sofa ten feet away.

She couldn't have been more than nineteen, with square shoulders and long brown hair that waved and cheered as it disappeared behind her neck. The high, round cheek-bones implied Orientalness, but that disappeared as soon as you reached her eyes, which were also round, and large, and bright grey. If that makes any sense. She was wearing a red silk dressing-gown, and one elegant slipper with fancy gold thread across the toes. I glanced around the room, but its mate was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she could only afford one.

She cleared some husk from her throat.

'Who is he?' she said.

I think I'd known she was going to be American before she opened her mouth. Too healthy to be anything else. And where do they get those teeth?

'His name was Rayner,' I said, and then realised that this sounded a little thin as an answer, so I thought I'd add something. 'He was a very dangerous man.'

'Dangerous?'

She looked worried by that, and quite right too. It was probably crossing her mind, as it was crossing mine, that if Rayner was dangerous, and I'd killed him, then that, hierarchically-speaking, made me very dangerous.

'Dangerous,' I said again, and watched her closely as she looked away. She seemed to be trembling less, which was good. Or maybe her trembling had just fallen into sync with mine, so I noticed it less.

'Well...what is he doing here?' she said at last. 'What did he want?'

'It's difficult to say.' Difficult for me, at any rate. 'Maybe he was after money, maybe the silver...'

'You mean ... he didn't tell you?' Her voice was suddenly loud. 'You hit this guy, without knowing who he was? What he was doing here?'

Despite the shock, her brain seemed to be coming along pretty nicely.

'I hit him because he was trying to kill me,' I said. 'I'm like that.'

I tried a roguish smile, then caught sight of it in the mirror over the mantelpiece and realised it hadn't worked.

'You're like that,' she repeated, unlovingly. 'And who are you?'

Well now. I was going to have to wear some very soft shoes at this juncture. This was where things could suddenly get a lot worse than they already were.

I tried looking surprised, and perhaps just a little bit hurt.

'You mean you don't recognise me?'

'No.'

'Huh. Odd. Fincham. James Fincham.' I held out my hand. She didn't take it, so I converted the movement into a nonchalant brush of the hair.

'That's a name,' she said. 'That's not who you are.'

'I'm a friend of your father's.'

She considered this for a moment.

'Business friend?'

'Sort of.'

'Sort of.' She nodded. 'You're James Fincham, you're a sort of business friend of my father's, and you've just killed a man in our house.'

I put my head on one side, and tried to show that yes, sometimes it's an absolute bugger of a world.

She showed her teeth again.

'And that's it, is it? That's your CV?'

I reprised the roguish smile, to no better effect.

'Wait a second,' she said.

She looked at Rayner, then suddenly sat up a little straighter, as if a thought had just struck her.

'You didn't call anybody, did you?'

Come to think of it, all things considered, she must have been nearer twenty-four.

'You mean...' I was floundering now.

'I mean, she said, 'there's no ambulance coming here. Jesus.'

She put the glass down on the carpet by her feet, got up and walked towards the phone.

'Look,' I said, 'before you do anything silly...'

I started to move towards her, but the way she spun round made me realise that staying still was probably the better plan. I didn't want to be pulling bits of telephone receiver out of my face for the next few weeks.

'You stay right there, Mr James Fincham,' she hissed at me. 'There's nothing silly about this. I'm calling an ambulance, and I'm calling the police. This is an internationally approved procedure. Men come round with big sticks and take you away. Nothing silly about it at all.'

'Look,' I said, 'I haven't been entirely straight with you.'

She turned towards me and narrowed her eyes. If you know what I mean by that. Narrowed them horizontally, not vertically. I suppose one should say she shortened her eyes, but nobody ever does.

She narrowed her eyes.

'What the hell do you mean "not entirely straight"? You only told me two things. You mean one of them was a lie?'

She had me on the ropes, there's no question about that. I was in trouble. But then again, she'd only dialled the first nine.

'My name is Fincham,' I said, 'and I do know your father.'

'Yeah, what brand of cigarette does he smoke?'

'Dunhill.'

'Never smoked a cigarette in his life.'

She was late-twenties, possibly. Thirty at a pinch. I took a deep breath while she dialled the second nine.

'All right, I don't know him. But I am trying to help.'

'Right. You've come to fix the shower.'

Third nine. Play the big card.

'Someone is trying to kill him,' I said.

There was a faint click and I could hear somebody, somewhere, asking which service we wanted. Very slowly she turned towards me, holding the receiver away from her face.

'What did you say?'

'Someone is trying to kill your father,' I repeated. 'I don't know who, and I don't know why. But I'm trying to stop them. That's who I am, and that's what I'm doing here.'

She looked at me long and hard. A clock ticked somewhere, hideously.

'This man,' I pointed at Rayner, 'had something to do with it.'

I could see that she thought this unfair, as Rayner was hardly in a position to contradict me; so I softened my tone a little, looking around anxiously as if I was every bit as mystified and fretted-up as she was.

'I can't say he came here to kill,' I said, 'because we didn't get a chance to talk much. But it's not impossible.' She carried on staring at me. The operator was squeaking hellos down the line and probably trying to trace the call.

She waited. For what, I'm not sure.

'Ambulance" she said at last, still looking at me, and then turned away slightly and gave the address. She nodded, and then slowly, very slowly, put the receiver back on its cradle and turned to me. There was one of those pauses that you know is going to be long as soon as it starts, so I shook out another cigarette and offered her the packet.

She came towards me and stopped. She was shorter than she'd looked on the other side of the room. I smiled again, and she took a cigarette from the packet, but didn't light it. She just played with it slowly, and then pointed a pair of grey eyes at me.

I say a pair. I mean her pair. She didn't get a pair of someone else's out from a drawer and point them at me. She pointed her own pair of huge, pale, grey, pale, huge eyes at me. The sort of eyes that can make a grown man talk gibberish to himself. Get a grip, for Christ's sake.

'You're a liar,' she said.

Not angry. Not scared. Just matter-of-fact. You're a liar.

'Well, yes,' I said, 'generally speaking, I am. But at this particular moment, I happen to be telling the truth.'

She kept on staring at my face, the way I sometimes do when I've finished shaving, but she didn't seem to get any more answers than I ever have. Then she blinked once, and the blink seemed to change things somehow. Something had been released, or switched off, or at least turned down a bit. I started to relax.

'Why would anyone want to kill my father?' Her voice was softer now.

'I honestly don't know,' I said. 'I've only just found out he doesn't smoke.'

She pressed straight on, as if she hadn't heard me.

'And tell me Mr Fincham,' she said, 'how you came by all this?'

This was the tricky bit. The really tricky bit. Trickiness cubed.

'Because I was offered the job,' I said.

She stopped breathing. I mean, she actually stopped breathing. And didn't look as if she had any plans to start again in the near future.

I carried on, as calmly as I could.

'Someone offered me a lot of money to kill your father,' I said, and she frowned in disbelief. 'I turned it down.'

I shouldn't have added that. I really shouldn't.

Newton's Third Law of Conversation, if it existed, would hold that every statement implies an equal and opposite statement. To say that I'd turned the offer down raised the possibility that I might not have done. Which was not a thing I wanted floating round the room at this moment. But she started breathing again, so maybe she hadn't noticed.

'Why?'

'Why what?'

Her left eye had a tiny streak of green that went off from the pupil in a north-easterly direction. I stood there, looking into her eyes and trying not to, because I was in terrible trouble at this moment. In lots of ways.

'Why'd you turn it down?'

'Because...' I began, then stopped, because I had to get this absolutely right.

'Yes?'

'Because I don't kill people.'

There was a pause while she took this in and swilled it round her mouth a few times. Then she glanced over at Rayner's body.

'I told you,' I said. 'He started it.'

She stared into me for another three hundred years and then, still turning the cigarette slowly between her fingers, moved away towards the sofa, apparently deep in thought.

'Honestly,' I said, trying to get a hold of myself and the situation. 'I'm nice. I give to Oxfam, I recycle newspapers, everything.'

She reached Rayner's body and stopped.

'So when did all this happen?'

'Well...just now,' I stammered, like an idiot.

She closed her eyes for a moment. 'I mean you getting asked.'

'Right,' I said. 'Ten days ago.'

'Where?'

'Amsterdam.'

'Holland, right?'

That was a relief. That made me feel a lot better. It's nice to be looked up to by the young every now and then. You don't want it all the time, just every now and then.

'Right,' I said.

'And who was it offered you the job?'

'Never seen him before or since.'

She stooped for the glass, took a sip of Calvados and grimaced at the taste of it.

'And I'm supposed to believe this?'

'Well...'

'I mean, help me out here,' she said, starting to get louder again. She nodded towards Rayner. 'We have a guy here, who isn't going to back up your story, I wouldn't say, and I'm supposed to believe you because of what? Because you have a nice face?'

I couldn't help myself. I should have helped myself, I know, but I just couldn't.

'Why not?' I said, and tried to look charming. 'I'd believe anything you said.'

Terrible mistake. Really terrible. One of the crassest, most ridiculous remarks I've ever made, in a long, ridiculous-remark-packed life.

She turned to me, suddenly very angry.

'You can drop that shit right now.'

'All I meant...' I said, but I was glad when she cut me off, because I honestly didn't know what I'd meant.

'I said drop it. There's a guy dying in here.'

I nodded, guiltily, and we both bowed our heads at Rayner, as if paying our respects. And then she seemed to snap the hymn book shut and move on. Her shoulders relaxed, and she held out the glass to me.

'I'm Sarah,' she said. 'See if you can get me a Coke.'

She did ring the police eventually, and they turned up just as the ambulance crew were scooping Rayner, apparently still breathing, on to a collapsible stretcher. They hummed and harred, and picked things up off the mantelpiece and looked at the underneath, and generally had that air of wanting to be somewhere else.

Policemen, as a rule, don't like to hear of new cases. Not because they're lazy, but because they want, like everyone else, to find a meaning, a connectedness, in the great mess of random unhappiness in which they work. If, in the middle of trying to catch some teenager who's been nicking hub-caps, they're called to the scene of a mass murder, they just can't stop themselves from checking under the sofa to see if there are any hub-caps there. They want to find something that connects to what they've already seen, that will make sense out of the chaos. So they can say to themselves, this happened because that happened. When they don't find it — when all they see is another lot of stuff that has to be written about, and filed, and lost, and found in someone's bottom drawer, and lost again, and eventually chalked up against no one's name — they get, well, disappointed.

They were particularly disappointed by our story. Sarah and I had rehearsed what we thought was a reasonable scenario, and we played three performances of it to officers of ascending rank, finishing up with an appallingly young inspector who said his name was Brock.

Brock sat on the sofa, occasionally glancing at his fingernails, and nodded his youthful way through the story of the intrepid James Fincham, friend of the family, staying in the spare-room on the first floor. Heard noises, crept downstairs to investigate, nasty man in leather jacket and black polo-neck, no never seen him before, fight, fall over, oh my god, hit head. Sarah Woolf, d.o.b. 29th August, 1964, heard sounds of struggle, came down, saw the whole thing. Drink, Inspector? Tea? Ribena?

Yes, of course, the setting helped. If we'd tried the same story in a council flat in Deptford, we'd have been on the floor of the van in seconds, asking fit young men with short hair if they wouldn't mind getting off our heads for a moment while we got comfortable. But in leafy, stuccoed Belgravia, the police are more inclined to believe you than not. I think it's included in the rates.

As we signed our statements, they asked us not to do anything silly like leave the country without informing the local station, and generally encouraged us to abide at every opportunity.

Two hours after he'd tried to break my arm, all that was left of Rayner, first name unknown, was a smell.

I let myself out of the house, and felt the pain creep back to centre stage as I walked. I lit a cigarette and smoked my way down to the corner, where I turned left into a cobbled mews that had once housed horses. It'd have to be an extremely rich horse who could afford to live here now, obviously, but the stabling character of the mews had hung about the place, and that's why it had felt right to tether the bike there. With a bucket of oats and some straw under the back wheel.

The bike was where I'd left it, which sounds like a dull remark, but isn't these days. Among bikers, leaving your machine in a dark place for more than an hour, even with padlock and alarm, and finding it still there when you come back, is something of a talking point. Particularly when the bike is a Kawasaki ZZR 1100.

Now I won't deny that the Japanese were well off-side at Pearl Harbor, and that their ideas on preparing fish for the table are undoubtedly poor — but by golly, they do know some things about making motorcycles. Twist the throttle wide open in any gear on this machine, and it'd push your eyeballs through the back of your head. All right, so maybe that's not a sensation most people are looking for in their choice of personal transport, but since I'd won the bike in a game of backgammon, getting home with an outrageously flukey only-throw 4-1 and three consecutive double sixes, I enjoyed it a lot. It was black, and big, and it allowed even the average rider to visit other galaxies.

I started the motor, revved it loud enough to wake a few fat Belgravian financiers, and set off for Notting Hill. I had to take it easy in the rain, so there was plenty of time for reflection on the night's business.

The one thing that stayed in my mind, as I jinked the bike along the slick, yellow-lit streets, was Sarah telling me to drop 'that shit'. And the reason I had to drop it was because there was a dying man in the room.

Newtonian Conversation, I thought to myself. The implication was that I could have kept on holding that shit, if the room hadn't had a dying man in it.

That cheered me up. I started to think that if I couldn't work things so that one day she and I would be together in a room with no dying men in it at all, then my name isn't James Fincham.

Which, of course, it isn't.

Copyright © 1996 by Hugh Laurie

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First Chapter

Chapter 1Who did not wish to die;

P. S. Stewart

Imagine that you have to break someone's arm.

Right or left, doesn't matter. The point is that you have to break it, because if you don't...well, that doesn't matter either. Let's just say bad things will happen if you don't.

Now, my question goes like this: do you break the arm quickly -- snap, whoops, sorry, here let me help you with that improvised splint -- or do you drag the whole business out for a good eight minutes, every now and then increasing the pressure in the tiniest of increments, until the pain becomes pink and green and hot and cold and altogether howlingly unbearable?

Well exactly. Of course. The right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Break the arm, ply the brandy, be a good citizen. There can be no other answer.

Unless.

Unless unless unless.

What if you were to hate the person on the other end of the arm? I mean really, really hate them.

This was a thing I now had to consider.

I say now, meaning then, meaning the moment I am describing; the moment fractionally, oh so bloody fractionally, before my wrist reached the back of my neck and my left humerus broke into at least two, very possibly more, floppily joined-together pieces.

The arm we've been discussing, you see, is mine. It's not an abstract, philosopher's arm. The bone, the skin, the hairs, the small white scar on the point of the elbow, won from the corner of a storage heater at Gateshill Primary School -- they all belong to me. And now is the moment when I must consider the possibility that the man standing behind me, gripping my wrist and driving it up my spine with an almost sexual degree of care, hates me. I mean, really, really hates me.

He is taking for ever.

His name was Rayner. First name unknown. By me, at any rate, and therefore, presumably, by you too.

I suppose someone, somewhere, must have known his first name -- must have baptised him with it, called him down to breakfast with it, taught him how to spell it -- and someone else must have shouted it across a bar with an offer of a drink, or murmured it during sex, or written it in a box on a life insurance application form. I know they must have done all these things. Just hard to picture, that's all.

Rayner, I estimated, was ten years older than me. Which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I have good, warm, non-arm-breaking relationships with plenty of people who are ten years older than me. People who are ten years older than me are, by and large, admirable. But Rayner was also three inches taller than me, four stones heavier, and at least eight however-you-measure-violence units more violent. He was 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.

And God Almighty, what a forehead. Bricks, knives, bottles and reasoned arguments had, in their time, bounced harmlessly off this massive frontal plane, leaving only the feeblest indentations between its deep, widely-spaced pores. They were, I think, the deepest and most widely-spaced pores I have ever seen in human skin, so that I found myself thinking back to the council putting-green in Dalbeattie, at the end of the long, dry summer of '76.

Moving now to the side elevation, we find that Rayner's ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking 'oh, it's an ear'.

And on top of all this, in case you hadn't got the message, Rayner wore a black leather jacket over a black polo-neck.

But of course you would have got the message. Rayner 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 it happened, I didn't owe him money. Rayner belonged to that select group of people to whom I didn't owe anything at all, and if things had been going a little better between us, I might have suggested that he and his fellows have a special tie struck, to signify membership. A motif of crossed paths, perhaps.

But, as I said, things weren't going well between us.

A one-armed combat instructor called Cliff (yes, I know -- he taught unarmed combat, and he only had one arm -- very occasionally life is like that) once told me that pain was a thing you did to yourself. Other people did things to you -- they hit you, or stabbed you, or tried to break your arm -- but pain was of your own making. Therefore, said Cliff, who had spent a fortnight in Japan and so felt entitled to unload dogshit of this sort on his eager charges, it was always within your power to stop your own pain. Cliff was killed in a pub brawl three months later by a fifty-five-year-old widow, so I don't suppose I'll ever have a chance to set him straight.

Pain is an event. It happens to you, and you deal with it in whatever way you can.

The only thing in my favour was that, so far, I hadn't made any noise.

Nothing to do with bravery, you understand, I simply hadn't got round to it. Up until this moment, Rayner and I had been pinging off the walls and furniture in a sweatily male silence, with only the occasional grunt to show that we were both still concentrating. But now, with not much more than five seconds to go before I passed out or the bone finally gave way -- now was the ideal moment to introduce a new element. And sound was all I could think of.

So I inhaled deeply through my nose, straightened up to get as close as I could to his face, held the breath for a moment, and then let out what Japanese martial artists refer to as a kiai -- you'd probably call it a very loud noise, and that wouldn't be so far off -- a scream of such blinding, shocking, what-the-fuck-was-that intensity, that I frightened myself quite badly.

On Rayner, the effect was pretty much as advertised, because he shifted involuntarily to one side, easing the grip on my arm for about a twelfth of a second. I threw my head back into his face as hard as I could, feeling the gristle in his nose adjust itself around the shape of my skull and a silky wetness spreading across my scalp, then brought my heel up towards his groin, scraping the inside of his thigh before connecting with an impressive bundle of genitalia. By the time the twelfth of a second had elapsed, Rayner was no longer breaking my arm, and I was aware, suddenly, of being drenched in sweat.

I backed away from him, dancing on my toes like a very old St. Bernard, and looked around for a weapon.

The venue for this pro-am contest of one fifteen-minute round was a small, inelegantly furnished sitting-room in Belgravia. The interior designer had done a perfectly horrible job, as all interior designers do, every single time, without fail, no exceptions -- but at that moment his or her liking for heavy, portable objets happened to coincide with mine. I selected an eighteen-inch Buddha from the mantelpiece with my good arm, and found that the little fellow's ears afforded a satisfyingly snug grip for the one-handed player.

Rayner was kneeling now, vomiting on a Chinese carpet and improving its colour no end. I chose my spot, braced myself, and swung at him back-handed, plugging the corner of the Buddha's plinth into the soft space behind his left ear, There was a dull, flat noise, of the kind that only human tissue under attack can make, and he rolled over on to his side.

I didn't bother to see whether he was still alive. Callous, perhaps, but there you go.

I wiped some of the sweat from my face and walked through into the hall. I tried to listen, but if there was any sound from the house or from the street outside I would never have heard it, because my heart was going like a road drill. Or perhaps there really was a road drill outside. I was too busy sucking in great suitcase-sized chunks of air to notice.

I opened the front door and immediately felt cool drizzle on my face. It mingled with the sweat, diluting it, diluting the pain in my arm, diluting everything, and I closed my eyes and let it fall. It was one of the nicest things I've ever experienced. You may say that it's a pretty poor life I've been leading. But then, you see, context is everything.

I left the door on the latch, stepped down on to the pavement and lit a cigarette. Gradually, grumpily, my heart sorted itself out, and my breathing followed at a distance. The pain in my arm was terrible, and I knew it would be with me for days, if not weeks, but at least it wasn't my smoking arm.

I went back into the house and saw that Rayner was where I'd left him, lying in a pool of vomit. He was dead, or he was grievously-bodily-harmed, either of which meant at least five years. Ten, with time added on for bad behaviour. And this, from my point of view, was bad.

I've been in prison, you see. Only three weeks, and only on remand, but when you've had to play chess twice a day with a monosyllabic West Ham supporter, who has 'HATE' tattooed on one hand, and 'HATE' on the other -- using a set missing six pawns, all the rooks and two of the bishops -- you find yourself cherishing the little things in life. Like not being in prison.

I was contemplating these and related matters, and starting to think of all the hot countries I'd never got around to visiting, when I realised that that noise -- that soft, creaking, shuffling, scraping noise -- was definitely not coming from my heart. Nor from my lungs, nor from any other part of my yelping body. That noise was definitely external.

Someone, or something, was making an utterly hopeless job of coming down the stairs quietly.

I left the Buddha where it was, picked up a hideous alabaster table lighter and moved towards the door, which was also hideous. How can one make a hideous door? you may ask. Well, it takes some doing, certainly, but believe me, the top interior designers can knock off this kind of thing before breakfast.

I tried to hold my breath and couldn't, so I waited noisily. A light switch flicked on somewhere, waited, then flicked off. A door opened, pause, nothing there either, closed. Stand still. Think. Try the sitting-room.

There was a rustle of clothing, a soft footfall, and then suddenly I found I was relaxing my grip on the alabaster lighter, and leaning back against the wall in something close to relief. Because even in my frightened, wounded state, I was ready to stake my life on the fact that Nina Ricci's Fleur de Fleurs is just not a fighting scent.

She stopped in the doorway and looked around the room. The lights were out, but the curtains were wide open and there was plenty of light coming in from the street.

I waited until her gaze fell on Rayner's body before I put my hand over her mouth.

We went through all the usual exchanges dictated by Hollywood and polite society. She tried to scream and bite the palm of my hand, and I told her to be quiet because I wasn't going to hurt her unless she shouted. She shouted and I hurt her. Pretty standard stuff, really.

By and by she was sitting on the hideous sofa with half a pint of what I thought was brandy but turned out to be Calvados, and I was standing by the door wearing my smartest and best 'I am psychiatrically A1' expression.

I'd rolled Rayner on to his side, into a kind of recovery position, to stop him from choking on his own vomit. Or anyone else's, if it came to that. She'd wanted to get up and fiddle with him, to see if he was all right -- pillows, damp cloths, bandages, all the things that help to make the bystander feel better -- but I told her to stay where she was because I'd already called an ambulance, and all in all it would be better to leave him alone.

She had started to tremble slightly. It started in the hands, as they clutched the glass, then moved to her elbows and up to her shoulders, and it got worse every time she looked at Rayner. Of course, trembling is probably not an uncommon reaction to discovering a mixture of dead person and vomit on your carpet in the middle of the night, but I didn't want her getting any worse. As I lit a cigarette with the alabaster lighter -- and yes, even the flame was hideous -- I tried to take in as much information as I could before the Calvados booted her up and she started asking questions.

I could see her face three times in that room: once in a silver-framed photograph on the mantelpiece, with her in Ray Bans, dangling from a ski-lift; once in a huge and terrible oil portrait, done by someone who can't have liked her all that much, hanging by the window; and finally, and definitely the best of all, in a sofa ten feet away.

She couldn't have been more than nineteen, with square shoulders and long brown hair that waved and cheered as it disappeared behind her neck. The high, round cheek-bones implied Orientalness, but that disappeared as soon as you reached her eyes, which were also round, and large, and bright grey. If that makes any sense. She was wearing a red silk dressing-gown, and one elegant slipper with fancy gold thread across the toes. I glanced around the room, but its mate was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she could only afford one.

She cleared some husk from her throat.

'Who is he?' she said.

I think I'd known she was going to be American before she opened her mouth. Too healthy to be anything else. And where do they get those teeth?

'His name was Rayner,' I said, and then realised that this sounded a little thin as an answer, so I thought I'd add something. 'He was a very dangerous man.'

'Dangerous?'

She looked worried by that, and quite right too. It was probably crossing her mind, as it was crossing mine, that if Rayner was dangerous, and I'd killed him, then that, hierarchically-speaking, made me very dangerous.

'Dangerous,' I said again, and watched her closely as she looked away. She seemed to be trembling less, which was good. Or maybe her trembling had just fallen into sync with mine, so I noticed it less.

'Well...what is he doing here?' she said at last. 'What did he want?'

'It's difficult to say.' Difficult for me, at any rate. 'Maybe he was after money, maybe the silver...'

'You mean ... he didn't tell you?' Her voice was suddenly loud. 'You hit this guy, without knowing who he was? What he was doing here?'

Despite the shock, her brain seemed to be coming along pretty nicely.

'I hit him because he was trying to kill me,' I said. 'I'm like that.'

I tried a roguish smile, then caught sight of it in the mirror over the mantelpiece and realised it hadn't worked.

'You're like that,' she repeated, unlovingly. 'And who are you?'

Well now. I was going to have to wear some very soft shoes at this juncture. This was where things could suddenly get a lot worse than they already were.

I tried looking surprised, and perhaps just a little bit hurt.

'You mean you don't recognise me?'

'No.'

'Huh. Odd. Fincham. James Fincham.' I held out my hand. She didn't take it, so I converted the movement into a nonchalant brush of the hair.

'That's a name,' she said. 'That's not who you are.'

'I'm a friend of your father's.'

She considered this for a moment.

'Business friend?'

'Sort of.'

'Sort of.' She nodded. 'You're James Fincham, you're a sort of business friend of my father's, and you've just killed a man in our house.'

I put my head on one side, and tried to show that yes, sometimes it's an absolute bugger of a world.

She showed her teeth again.

'And that's it, is it? That's your CV?'

I reprised the roguish smile, to no better effect.

'Wait a second,' she said.

She looked at Rayner, then suddenly sat up a little straighter, as if a thought had just struck her.

'You didn't call anybody, did you?'

Come to think of it, all things considered, she must have been nearer twenty-four.

'You mean...' I was floundering now.

'I mean, she said, 'there's no ambulance coming here. Jesus.'

She put the glass down on the carpet by her feet, got up and walked towards the phone.

'Look,' I said, 'before you do anything silly...'

I started to move towards her, but the way she spun round made me realise that staying still was probably the better plan. I didn't want to be pulling bits of telephone receiver out of my face for the next few weeks.

'You stay right there, Mr James Fincham,' she hissed at me. 'There's nothing silly about this. I'm calling an ambulance, and I'm calling the police. This is an internationally approved procedure. Men come round with big sticks and take you away. Nothing silly about it at all.'

'Look,' I said, 'I haven't been entirely straight with you.'

She turned towards me and narrowed her eyes. If you know what I mean by that. Narrowed them horizontally, not vertically. I suppose one should say she shortened her eyes, but nobody ever does.

She narrowed her eyes.

'What the hell do you mean "not entirely straight"? You only told me two things. You mean one of them was a lie?'

She had me on the ropes, there's no question about that. I was in trouble. But then again, she'd only dialled the first nine.

'My name is Fincham,' I said, 'and I do know your father.'

'Yeah, what brand of cigarette does he smoke?'

'Dunhill.'

'Never smoked a cigarette in his life.'

She was late-twenties, possibly. Thirty at a pinch. I took a deep breath while she dialled the second nine.

'All right, I don't know him. But I am trying to help.'

'Right. You've come to fix the shower.'

Third nine. Play the big card.

'Someone is trying to kill him,' I said.

There was a faint click and I could hear somebody, somewhere, asking which service we wanted. Very slowly she turned towards me, holding the receiver away from her face.

'What did you say?'

'Someone is trying to kill your father,' I repeated. 'I don't know who, and I don't know why. But I'm trying to stop them. That's who I am, and that's what I'm doing here.'

She looked at me long and hard. A clock ticked somewhere, hideously.

'This man,' I pointed at Rayner, 'had something to do with it.'

I could see that she thought this unfair, as Rayner was hardly in a position to contradict me; so I softened my tone a little, looking around anxiously as if I was every bit as mystified and fretted-up as she was.

'I can't say he came here to kill,' I said, 'because we didn't get a chance to talk much. But it's not impossible.' She carried on staring at me. The operator was squeaking hellos down the line and probably trying to trace the call.

She waited. For what, I'm not sure.

'Ambulance" she said at last, still looking at me, and then turned away slightly and gave the address. She nodded, and then slowly, very slowly, put the receiver back on its cradle and turned to me. There was one of those pauses that you know is going to be long as soon as it starts, so I shook out another cigarette and offered her the packet.

She came towards me and stopped. She was shorter than she'd looked on the other side of the room. I smiled again, and she took a cigarette from the packet, but didn't light it. She just played with it slowly, and then pointed a pair of grey eyes at me.

I say a pair. I mean her pair. She didn't get a pair of someone else's out from a drawer and point them at me. She pointed her own pair of huge, pale, grey, pale, huge eyes at me. The sort of eyes that can make a grown man talk gibberish to himself. Get a grip, for Christ's sake.

'You're a liar,' she said.

Not angry. Not scared. Just matter-of-fact. You're a liar.

'Well, yes,' I said, 'generally speaking, I am. But at this particular moment, I happen to be telling the truth.'

She kept on staring at my face, the way I sometimes do when I've finished shaving, but she didn't seem to get any more answers than I ever have. Then she blinked once, and the blink seemed to change things somehow. Something had been released, or switched off, or at least turned down a bit. I started to relax.

'Why would anyone want to kill my father?' Her voice was softer now.

'I honestly don't know,' I said. 'I've only just found out he doesn't smoke.'

She pressed straight on, as if she hadn't heard me.

'And tell me Mr Fincham,' she said, 'how you came by all this?'

This was the tricky bit. The really tricky bit. Trickiness cubed.

'Because I was offered the job,' I said.

She stopped breathing. I mean, she actually stopped breathing. And didn't look as if she had any plans to start again in the near future.

I carried on, as calmly as I could.

'Someone offered me a lot of money to kill your father,' I said, and she frowned in disbelief. 'I turned it down.'

I shouldn't have added that. I really shouldn't.

Newton's Third Law of Conversation, if it existed, would hold that every statement implies an equal and opposite statement. To say that I'd turned the offer down raised the possibility that I might not have done. Which was not a thing I wanted floating round the room at this moment. But she started breathing again, so maybe she hadn't noticed.

'Why?'

'Why what?'

Her left eye had a tiny streak of green that went off from the pupil in a north-easterly direction. I stood there, looking into her eyes and trying not to, because I was in terrible trouble at this moment. In lots of ways.

'Why'd you turn it down?'

'Because...' I began, then stopped, because I had to get this absolutely right.

'Yes?'

'Because I don't kill people.'

There was a pause while she took this in and swilled it round her mouth a few times. Then she glanced over at Rayner's body.

'I told you,' I said. 'He started it.'

She stared into me for another three hundred years and then, still turning the cigarette slowly between her fingers, moved away towards the sofa, apparently deep in thought.

'Honestly,' I said, trying to get a hold of myself and the situation. 'I'm nice. I give to Oxfam, I recycle newspapers, everything.'

She reached Rayner's body and stopped.

'So when did all this happen?'

'Well...just now,' I stammered, like an idiot.

She closed her eyes for a moment. 'I mean you getting asked.'

'Right,' I said. 'Ten days ago.'

'Where?'

'Amsterdam.'

'Holland, right?'

That was a relief. That made me feel a lot better. It's nice to be looked up to by the young every now and then. You don't want it all the time, just every now and then.

'Right,' I said.

'And who was it offered you the job?'

'Never seen him before or since.'

She stooped for the glass, took a sip of Calvados and grimaced at the taste of it.

'And I'm supposed to believe this?'

'Well...'

'I mean, help me out here,' she said, starting to get louder again. She nodded towards Rayner. 'We have a guy here, who isn't going to back up your story, I wouldn't say, and I'm supposed to believe you because of what? Because you have a nice face?'

I couldn't help myself. I should have helped myself, I know, but I just couldn't.

'Why not?' I said, and tried to look charming. 'I'd believe anything you said.'

Terrible mistake. Really terrible. One of the crassest, most ridiculous remarks I've ever made, in a long, ridiculous-remark-packed life.

She turned to me, suddenly very angry.

'You can drop that shit right now.'

'All I meant...' I said, but I was glad when she cut me off, because I honestly didn't know what I'd meant.

'I said drop it. There's a guy dying in here.'

I nodded, guiltily, and we both bowed our heads at Rayner, as if paying our respects. And then she seemed to snap the hymn book shut and move on. Her shoulders relaxed, and she held out the glass to me.

'I'm Sarah,' she said. 'See if you can get me a Coke.'

She did ring the police eventually, and they turned up just as the ambulance crew were scooping Rayner, apparently still breathing, on to a collapsible stretcher. They hummed and harred, and picked things up off the mantelpiece and looked at the underneath, and generally had that air of wanting to be somewhere else.

Policemen, as a rule, don't like to hear of new cases. Not because they're lazy, but because they want, like everyone else, to find a meaning, a connectedness, in the great mess of random unhappiness in which they work. If, in the middle of trying to catch some teenager who's been nicking hub-caps, they're called to the scene of a mass murder, they just can't stop themselves from checking under the sofa to see if there are any hub-caps there. They want to find something that connects to what they've already seen, that will make sense out of the chaos. So they can say to themselves, this happened because that happened. When they don't find it -- when all they see is another lot of stuff that has to be written about, and filed, and lost, and found in someone's bottom drawer, and lost again, and eventually chalked up against no one's name -- they get, well, disappointed.

They were particularly disappointed by our story. Sarah and I had rehearsed what we thought was a reasonable scenario, and we played three performances of it to officers of ascending rank, finishing up with an appallingly young inspector who said his name was Brock.

Brock sat on the sofa, occasionally glancing at his fingernails, and nodded his youthful way through the story of the intrepid James Fincham, friend of the family, staying in the spare-room on the first floor. Heard noises, crept downstairs to investigate, nasty man in leather jacket and black polo-neck, no never seen him before, fight, fall over, oh my god, hit head. Sarah Woolf, d.o.b. 29th August, 1964, heard sounds of struggle, came down, saw the whole thing. Drink, Inspector? Tea? Ribena?

Yes, of course, the setting helped. If we'd tried the same story in a council flat in Deptford, we'd have been on the floor of the van in seconds, asking fit young men with short hair if they wouldn't mind getting off our heads for a moment while we got comfortable. But in leafy, stuccoed Belgravia, the police are more inclined to believe you than not. I think it's included in the rates.

As we signed our statements, they asked us not to do anything silly like leave the country without informing the local station, and generally encouraged us to abide at every opportunity.

Two hours after he'd tried to break my arm, all that was left of Rayner, first name unknown, was a smell.

I let myself out of the house, and felt the pain creep back to centre stage as I walked. I lit a cigarette and smoked my way down to the corner, where I turned left into a cobbled mews that had once housed horses. It'd have to be an extremely rich horse who could afford to live here now, obviously, but the stabling character of the mews had hung about the place, and that's why it had felt right to tether the bike there. With a bucket of oats and some straw under the back wheel.

The bike was where I'd left it, which sounds like a dull remark, but isn't these days. Among bikers, leaving your machine in a dark place for more than an hour, even with padlock and alarm, and finding it still there when you come back, is something of a talking point. Particularly when the bike is a Kawasaki ZZR 1100.

Now I won't deny that the Japanese were well off-side at Pearl Harbor, and that their ideas on preparing fish for the table are undoubtedly poor -- but by golly, they do know some things about making motorcycles. Twist the throttle wide open in any gear on this machine, and it'd push your eyeballs through the back of your head. All right, so maybe that's not a sensation most people are looking for in their choice of personal transport, but since I'd won the bike in a game of backgammon, getting home with an outrageously flukey only-throw 4-1 and three consecutive double sixes, I enjoyed it a lot. It was black, and big, and it allowed even the average rider to visit other galaxies.

I started the motor, revved it loud enough to wake a few fat Belgravian financiers, and set off for Notting Hill. I had to take it easy in the rain, so there was plenty of time for reflection on the night's business.

The one thing that stayed in my mind, as I jinked the bike along the slick, yellow-lit streets, was Sarah telling me to drop 'that shit'. And the reason I had to drop it was because there was a dying man in the room.

Newtonian Conversation, I thought to myself. The implication was that I could have kept on holding that shit, if the room hadn't had a dying man in it.

That cheered me up. I started to think that if I couldn't work things so that one day she and I would be together in a room with no dying men in it at all, then my name isn't James Fincham.

Which, of course, it isn't.

Copyright © 1996 by Hugh Laurie

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Introduction

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion of Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Discussion Questions
  1. Hugh Laurie makes deft comic use of names and nicknames, such as the Carls, Murdah, and the deadly helicopter called "The Graduate." Name some of your favorites.
  2. Who is "the gun seller" of the novel's title?
  3. One reviewer wrote that The Gun Seller is "certainly the first novel to combine The Day of the Jackal with The Code of the Woosters." What other literary or cinematic comparisons does The Gun Seller bring to mind?
  4. To enjoy The Gun Seller, do you think a reader must be familiar with traditional spy novels? Why or why not?
  5. Part of the way through The Gun Seller, Sarah Woolf stops being preceded by the scent of Nina Ricci's Fleur de Fleurs. What might this suggest? Discuss ways the author marks the shifting nature of Thomas Lang's relationship to Sarah.
  6. Discuss how much Solomon knew about Graduate Studies and when he knew it.
  7. Note some of the ways Laurie sends up clichés, for instance: "She turned towards me and narrowed her eyes....Narrowed them horizontally, not vertically."
  8. How has Laurie altered your opinion of Volvos or Fiat Pandas?
  9. According to The Gun Seller, why do diplomats end up with all the world's best real estate?
  10. Lang says that "stepping into an open-top sports car driven by a beautiful woman....feels likeyou're climbing into a metaphor." How does Laurie get the reader to climb in, buckle up and enjoy the ride in this meta-spy novel?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion of Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Discussion Questions
  1. Hugh Laurie makes deft comic use of names and nicknames, such as the Carls, Murdah, and the deadly helicopter called "The Graduate." Name some of your favorites.
  2. Who is "the gun seller" of the novel's title?
  3. One reviewer wrote that The Gun Seller is "certainly the first novel to combine The Day of the Jackal with The Code of the Woosters." What other literary or cinematic comparisons does The Gun Seller bring to mind?
  4. To enjoy The Gun Seller, do you think a reader must be familiar with traditional spy novels? Why or why not?
  5. Part of the way through The Gun Seller, Sarah Woolf stops being preceded by the scent of Nina Ricci's Fleur de Fleurs. What might this suggest? Discuss ways the author marks the shifting nature of Thomas Lang's relationship to Sarah.
  6. Discuss how much Solomon knew about Graduate Studies and when he knew it.
  7. Note some of the ways Laurie sends up clichés, for instance: "She turned towards me and narrowed her eyes....Narrowed them horizontally, not vertically."
  8. How has Laurie altered your opinion of Volvos or Fiat Pandas?
  9. According to The Gun Seller, why do diplomats end up with all the world's best real estate?
  10. Lang says that "stepping into an open-top sports car driven by a beautiful woman....feels like you're climbing into a metaphor." How does Laurie get the reader to climb in, buckle up and enjoy the ride in this meta-spy novel?
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 81 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(45)

4 Star

(30)

3 Star

(4)

2 Star

(1)

1 Star

(1)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 82 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2011

    Great book in its genre.

    Hugh Laurie apparently does A LOT of things well, including writing novels.

    The Gun Seller is chock full of wit, quip, and typical British idiosyncrasies. But more importantly its a great story. Hugh Laurie's writing style simply put, is brilliant.

    While reading the story, at times, I couldn't help but be reminded of an Andy McNab novel or Jack Higgins novel (which is a good thing).

    All I can say is that I hope there's another novel to come some day.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 6, 2009

    Hugh Laurie is an author?

    I saw this book on the shelf and thought "Really? Hugh Laurie?" so I picked it up just to see. I was please by this book. The main character was smart, acerbic (just the way I like 'em!) and interesting to read. The whole book was a pleasure for me. Thanks Hugh!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2009

    Fabulous to learn Hugh Laurie was a real Renaissance man, including excellent writer

    Great book...keeps one going. Hugh Laurie has an easy to read style and lots of great humor, twists, creates wonderful character, keeps one's absolute attention.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2012

    Awesome Pre-House Hugh.

    For those of you who are reading this review and are debating on picking this book up, I can only say spend the money and get it. A lot of Americans only know Hugh Laurie as the sullen, drug-addicted, cynical cane-wielding Dr. Gregory House. Most Americans do not, however, know that Hugh Laurie is a hugely popular British comedic genius. Now, I grew up knowing who he was well before his foray into American TV. I grew up watching him in Black Adder, as well as Jeeves and Wooster. When I saw this book sitting on a clearance shelf at a local book store, I had to have it. If he could write even half as well as act, it was sure to be great. To be entirely honest, this book exceeded my expectations. It's full of the dry humor Brits are known for, but also has humor that Americans can laugh at. It doesn't start out slowly building to the humor either. Within the first page, he is describing his character being worked over by a goon and it is literally laughter inducing. His character descriptions are over the top, but completely believable. Oh, and the story isn't lacking for anything either. If Laurie really wanted to, he could have omitted the humor and had a thrilling spy novel. The humor is just the icing on the cake. If you love Hugh Laurie in House, You will love this book. If you love British comedy, you will love this book. If you don't like either, avoid this book. That is the only thing bad I can say. If you are looking for something serious, this is not your book, but who doesn't enjoy a good laugh?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2011

    Amazing

    I am unbelievably captivated. Cant stop. Addicted

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2011

    Fun read

    This book is very funny as well as being a white-knuckle thriller. The only negative thing I can say is that Mr. Laurie REALLY needs a good proof reader!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2011

    Good!

    I enjoyed the narrative, I didn't enjoy the profanity.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2012

    Witty, hilarious and action filled- a must read!

    What a great novel. I am not into "action" novels, but when I heard Hugh Laurie had written a bookI rushed out and bought it. It seemed as if he were sitting next to me telling me a story. I laughed out loud from the blatantly obvious to the subtle wit. Read, read, read!!!

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  • Posted February 8, 2011

    adam

    ,

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Great Entertainment!

    Dry humor, witty remarks, and a bit of sarcasm, written in first person by the man we all now know as House. For me, the actual plot - which is sort of a spy thriller; part serious, part satire - was secondary to the writing and the characters. I didn't particularly care what they were doing. I just loved reading his words. His characters are vivid and unique. He has a true gift for writing dialogue and even his narrative sucked me in and held me in place.

    In all fairness, however, I must admit that the plot was at times convoluted in such a way that it could be difficult to follow. I think, in Laurie's effort to bring suspense to the story, he sometimes leaves the reader dangling in the wind. However, the entertainment value of his writing style carried me through any little rough spots in the plot.

    When I turned the last page, I was sad to say goodbye to the characters. Thomas Lang, Laurie's main character, wants to live on in my mind. And, for me, that's the mark of a great story.

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  • Posted April 9, 2010

    Hugh Laurie manages to write a comedy that is still engaging and exciting.

    The Gun Seller is an exceptional book. Hugh Laurie effectively captures the essence of hard boiled detective novels and gives his own book a very comedic twist. Thomas Lang is a wonderful main character. Having left his life in the Scots Guards, finds himself thrown back into action as a part of a twisting conspiracy with no conceivable good ending. Sarah Woolf is the Brigid O'Shaughnessy to Lang's Sam Spade, dragging Lang along with her and her father Alexander.

    The characters in The Gun Seller are all brilliant, and the witty banter thrown around never feels out of place. The story just keeps getting more and more ridiculous and Lang rolls with the punches admirably. The most surprising thing about this book is not how funny it is, given Laurie's past, but how it manages to be thrilling at the same time. The plot, taken seriously, is a little predictable if you have read similar novels. This doesn't stop the reader from being attached to the characters or wanting Lang to get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

    All in all I would highly recommend this book to just about anybody. It's a quick read without feeling too short, and Hugh Laurie is an extremely witty and hilarious writer. Excellent characters, amusing dialogue, and an engaging, albeit somewhat predictable, plot all add up quite nicely to make The Gun Seller a must-read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2009

    Interesting, fun, but difficult to read at times

    The Gun Seller is a good read, but difficult at times due to the unfamiliar British expressions used. Adding to the difficulty is Laurie's writing style...bouncing around on tangents exactly the way his character on House does.

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  • Posted September 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Pretentious and Inconsistent!

    Okay, I want to know what happened? Did Hugh Laurie's brain go on vacation 2/3rds of the way through the book? When I sat down to read The Gun Seller I thought that it was fun, witty, and exciting. The sarcasm was fun for a while, but then it got irksome. It was a bit showy and over the top. Every paragraph and almost every sentence was hosed down with mockery. Then, about 2/3rds of the way through the sarcasm just stopped. There must have been a serious kink in his ridicule hose. Uh, where did Hugh go? It ended with all seriousness and down to business with a few chuckles here and there. Overall the book was an okay read, the story line was good, but I felt like he rushed the ending or overdid the beginning. I can't decide which.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A let down.

    I was excited to find this book because I love the author as an actor, but I think he should stick to his day job, so to speak.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 22, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Awesome book

    First off if you love humor, adventure, skilfully written lines you will for sure love this book. The reason i read this book is because i am a big fan of Hugh Laurie. I had just recentlly figured out that he had wrote a novel and a pretty good one. I have to say that there are a few slow spots but they dont last long at all. I would recomend this book to family, friends, any body i really would. Mr lang is the perfect man for the job. i dont want to spoil it so just go ahead read it go on do it.

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  • Posted February 24, 2009

    Please Hugh, write some more.

    I admit it, I'm not as much of an avid as I once was. Nonetheless, this novel rekindled my relationship with novels in a way. I'm not going to get into the morals of this story, but one things for sure, this was one DAMN good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2008

    A reviewer

    I just had to read this book. It was a Staff Recommendation at Barnes & Noble but that's not why I had to read it. (to the staff's credit though, it is how I noticed the book in the first place) I had to read it because of the author, Hugh Laurie. He is Dr. House on TV. And he is a multifaceted guy. Until I saw a quick interview with him at the Superbowl, I had no idea he was British. I know, I know, what about A Bit of Fry and Laurie, or Blackadder, or Jeeves and Wooster. I never heard of those shows or any of his other previous work, but I thought, if his writing reflects any of his characterization and dialog skills on House, then it could be a worthwhile read. On top of all his creative accomplishments, his bio includes '[Hugh Laurie] is an avid motor cyclist.' And that closed the deal. For lack of a better term/category/genre, this is a spy novel. Albeit a pretty funny romp through the world of the CIA, British intelligence, terrorism and arms dealing, it is still at its heart a spy thriller. And I would say it is quite good. A quick and very entertaining read. The main character is a great and witty personality. There is a lot going on here, so it actually falls into the Thinker category too. You're never quite sure who is doing what and to whom. All of this makes for a good read. There is no groundbreaking stuff here, but it still qualifies for my 4 stars as a great entertaining read. You won't be disappointed. And if you're familiar with Mr. Laurie's various dramatic and comedic work, you will like it even more. The wit of the writer carries through the entire book and I was pleasantly pleased with the application of humor. There is a brief interview with Hugh Laurie in the back of the book in which he is asked what inspired him to write this book. His response was that he had taken a close look at his humdrum life and decided to make up a life. He just wanted to fantasize an adventure. In my opinion, that is a great way to write a book! Well done, Hugh, well done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2007

    The Gun Seller

    An absolute blast. If you enjoy dry humor and spy adventure stories then you should consider this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2007

    The Gun Seller

    I absolutely loved this novel,It is hands down my favorite book of all time.It is hard to put this book down,I found myself reading it for hours on end.I recommend this book to anyone with a good since of humor and who loves a excellent spy novel.Hugh Laurie is one of the best actors I have ever seen,now one of the best writers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2005

    Wow, who knew?

    Great read!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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