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INTRIGUE GETS SMART

Remember those celebrities of British and American TV comedy like harassed Basil Fawlty, hapless Bertie Wooster or inept Maxwell Smart, Agent 86? There's a bit of each in Thomas Lang, central character in "The Gun Seller," a comic romp that outrageously spoofs the genre of international intrigue.

The link between British author Hugh Laurie and humor is unmistakeable. He played the ineffectual Bertie Wooster in "Jeeves and Wooster," the U.K.'s TV laugh riot, and is a partner of England's funny man Stephen Fry.

In the wild, uproarious, always clever and often hilarious "Gun Seller," Laurie draws a bead on the literary icons created by Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Len Deighton, et al., as well as their favorite narrative devices. He borrows shamelessly and light heartedly not only from these authors' covert heroes but from their flamboyant escapades and derring-do as well.

Featured in "The Gun Seller," Laurie's first novel, is Lang, a drifter, ex-Scots Guard and decent chap who, in a weak moment, hires out as a hitman and blunders into a blend of comedy and suspense that leads to madcap international misadventures.

So decent is hitman Lang that his conscience prompts him to warn the target of his danger. The roof falls in. Before you can say "secret service," author Laurie's stage is crowded with international arms dealers, luscious ladies, renegade CIA types, wacko ruffians and the prototype of a whiz-bang new killer-helicopter dubbed "The Graduate."

An arms merchant named Murdah, self-proclaimed leader of Mideast crazies, conspires to fake a hostage crisis to showcase the Graduate that he's marketing. In a farcical showdown, Lang skotches Murdah with a handy British Jevelin, a weapon designed to make Murdah's Graduate go boom.

We hope to hear more of the nonchalance-under-fire Thomas Lang, who prefers his Kawasaki ZZR 1100 motorcycle over an Aston Martin DB 111, who likes his vodka martinis "incredibly dry," and who steps off the page to inform us, "We're on the roof of the consulate now, just so you know." Nor are we bogged down with descriptions: "Dawn. Sunrise. Daybreak. Whatever."

Quips fly, the wit is sharp, the irony is delicious. If Fleming and Le Carre had funny bones, the literary conniptions of James Bond, George Smiley and their ensemble casts might have been lightened by the likes of a crazy-like-a-fox Lang.
THE GUN SELLER
By Hugh Laurie
Soho
339 pages, $24

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