One summer when I was a teenager, I read the entire James Bond series by Ian Fleming. They were more interesting to me than the films, which were all about gadgets and girls (note: I like gadgets and girls! I just enjoyed the books more). I've read various Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum novels as well. That said, I feel fairly conversant in spy novels, though hardly an expert.
Hugh Laurie's "The Gun Seller" is touted as a spoof of the spy novel. One of the things that did not work for me was the spoof part--the plot here is a convoluted mess, involving terrorists, rogue CIA agents, conscienceless arms dealers, and one guy--the narrator, Thomas Lang--who gets caught up in the middle of it all.
I've read plenty of spy novels where the plot was even messier and more convoluted, and they were "serious" spy novels, not ostensible "spoofs."
Where the spoofiness comes into play is in Laurie's playful narrative. Some examples:
I had to wonder how Ginny could hold her head up under the weight of cosmetics smeared all over her face. Underneath it all, she may have been quite pretty. Or she may have been Dirk Bogarde. I will never know. (The Gun Seller, p. 55).
Of course, I knew that Bob wasn’t exactly a choirboy. He wasn’t even the boy who bullies the choirboy. At the very best, he was the older brother of the boy who bullies the boy who bullies the choirboy. (p. 74)
Finally, considering how James Bond is always ordering Bourbon and branch water (in the books):
I picked up a glass and a bottle of The Famous Grouse, poured myself a couple of fingers, and went into the kitchen. I added enough water to turn it into just a Vaguely Familiar Grouse. (p.19)
My favorite line is probably, "This time she laughed, actually laughed, and I felt like I’d won every Olympic medal that had ever been struck." (p.81)
I finally stopped highlighting the especially funny lines.
And there are brilliantly funny descriptions throughout "The Gun Seller," and I think anyone who enjoys clever wordplay would adore "The Gun Seller."
Therein lies the problem with "The Gun Seller." There was so much clever overwriting, so many things held up for verbal evisceration, that the plot got lost. I'd find that the story had moved to Paris or Copenhagen or Amsterdam, and I wasn't sure how we got there. It didn't bother me, really: I was having a great time, and so the hell what? We're now inexplicably in Casablanca.
It does matter, though, in a novel. There are ways to toy with language and still tell a good story. Tim Dorsey's "Serge Storms" novels are hilarious, but you can always follow the story. The story may be insane--as is Serge--and you may find yourself laughing at the creative ways in which Serge kills deserving assholes, but there is a plot, and you can follow it.
"The Gun Seller" wasn't a bad story, really. It was fine. However, to me, a good spy thriller is like an "Indiana Jones" movie. When we get to the end, I can't imagine how freaking exhausted the hero must be, from fleeing and pursuing, the constant adrenaline rush of danger, and just sheer living by your guts and wits, just barely escaping with your life, and trying to do the right thing along the way. I didn't sense that urgency in "The Gun Seller."
I gave "The Gun Seller" four stars. As a spy novel--spoof or not--I give it a two. For sheer rhetorical entertainment, I give it a six. Neither Bond nor Bourne have anything to worry about, spy-wise. Their work is more dangerous, and less a simple framework upon which to pile acerbic prose.