A wee bit unrealistic (but again which spy novel is realistic), somewhat predictable, yet some twists in the plot, and Hugh Laurie’s unique brand of humour, world view and philosophy makes this book really interesting. This is one of those books which you read, because you already know and admire the author. The reason that made me pick up the book was also the reason that made me read it whenever I got time and finish it as soon as I could. It is what Hugh Laurie thinks of this world and everything in it from love and sex to money and crime to travel, culture and more.
The protagonist Thomas Lang is Mr Laurie himself, the same way that Holden Caulfield was Salinger himself. Laurie’s humility, simplicity, nonchalance and self deprecation is reflected in Lang. The plot, which includes conspiracy, villains, lives in danger that needs to be saved by the hero, love interest kidnapped, mystery to be unfolded, is secondary to the style, wit and philosophy of Thomas Lang. Every sentence in the book gives a unique view to everyday things, presents the most ordinary and common tropes in literature in a never before way (except maybe if you are an ardent reader of PG Wodehouse or Oscar Wilde in which case its not so much of never-before). Sample some of these:
How Laurie describes a crime scene
I shifted back and looked at the floor. Seven or eight oily-looking nuts and bolts lay at Woolf’s feet, and I leant down to brush them away.
But they weren’t nuts and bolts, and it wasn’t oil. I was kneeling on his teeth.
Laurie’s take on life and its meaning, conveyed through a crime scene. Note the fact that a crime scene is called a tableau.
The tableau, as I’d left it, didn’t make much sense. But then real life doesn’t either, and a confusing scene is often easier to believe than a straightforward one. That’s what I hoped, anyway.
…but I’m going to acknowledge it, because I’ve always felt that humility before the facts is the only thing that keeps a rational man together. Be humble in the face of facts, and proud in the face of opinions, as George Bernard Shaw once said.
He didn’t, actually. I just wanted to put some authority behind this observation of mine, because I know you’re not going to like it.
And some very Oscar Wildish puns…
I typed a long and incomprehensible statement…It was long because I didn’t have time to do a short one, and incomprehensible because my typewriter has no letter ‘d’.
Things changed quickly, and they changed for good. Roused from its slumber, the military-industrial complex lifted a great, lazy paw, and swatted him away, as if he were no more than a human being.
This of course is one of the hazards of lying to people. They start getting confused about what’s true and what isn’t. No great surprise, I suppose.
And how he describes thoughts and ideas in our heads as living beings, animated and capable of scaring us, bite us… This in particular is an extraordinary style. Essentially what he meant was that sometimes our deepest thoughts and ideas are not even in out control or even if they are in our control and are products of our own doing we might be scared to come to terms with them. Here, Lang is doing a self introspection and trying to understand and justify to himself, his actions towards his love interest.
Or perhaps – and this was the explanation I came to last, moving cautiously around it, peering at it, prodding it with a sharp stick every now and then to see if it’d get up and bite me – perhaps I’d stopped caring.
It is fascinating to read such style of writing. It is immaterial where the story is going, because every word and sentence entertains you and it really doesn’t matter if the climax didn’t live up to the expectations of a reader. Another interesting thing to note is how it reflects small things that Laurie is fond of, which we now know from his various interviews post House success – his jazz music gets a mention in the book, Swanee River one of his favourite songs, Murder – one of the most difficult word to pronounce in an American Accent.
The book was written in 1996 at a time when mobile phones were still not so much a part of our daily lives, neither was Google. A lot of the plot would go for a toss if this story had to be imagined in present day. Another thing would have been really different if Laurie wrote this book now, post House. Laurie first sent the manuscript under a pseudonym just to check whether his writing is accepted without his star power because he was wary of being labelled yet another celebrity writing a book. Fact is, he was yet to be a star in the real sense because House hasn’t happened back then. To his delight it was accepted even though nobody knew who was James Callum. My guess is, if he wrote this book now, it would have met with much larger success for the sheer fan following he has today. As I said, it is one of those books you want to read because you already know the author. Today more people know and are in love with Hugh Laurie.
I wish Laurie wrote more. I would love to read more of his unique style and wit. Twenty years went by and the malcontent super talented man didn’t write another book. Why? Because he keeps moving on to so many other things he is good at. Still wish he writes more.