From the venerable halls of Cambridge University in the early 1980s, emerged two of the finest comedic minds in British Comedy. From their years as writers and performers in Cambridge’s Footlights troupe, through their acting stints in Jeeves and Wooster, various seasons of Blackadder, and especially their brilliant BBC sketch comedy series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have spent the better part of my life making me laugh, often uncontrollably, and (occasionally) like a blithering idiot.
In the 1990s, Stephen Fry reached perhaps a wider audience with his pitch-perfect performance as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, and as for Mr. Laurie, well, unless you’ve been spending the last three years on Pluto, you’ve probably heard of a certain brilliant but tormented diagnostic genius named Gregory House.
All of which leads me to this: For years I’ve been fully aware that both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are also accomplished novelists. And despite my knowledge that they, separately and together, could seemingly write and perform anything, comedy or drama, brilliantly, in any medium, I still held off reading their critically acclaimed novels. When I eventually relented, I did so with enormous trepidation. Maybe I was worried that they wouldn’t reach the same heights, in my estimation, as they already had in other media.
I needn’t have worried.
Hugh Laurie’s first novel, The Gun Seller is a comical, first-person account by one Thomas Lang, former soldier, now a civilian, who finds himself drawn into a bit of intrigue involving state-of-the-art weaponry, international terrorism, and well, the love of a good woman (Or is she a femme fatale?). The story moves along at a fast clip, building tension, and saying a few things about human morality along the way. And as it was published in 1996, it reflects that now almost nostalgically quaint post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era.
But it’s all recounted with a savage tongue planted firmly in cheek. Describing the facial features of one of the parade of brutes who for various reasons want to kill our hero:
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.’
While Laurie’s The Gun Seller is a comic-thriller pure and simple, Stephen Fry’s 1991 debut novel, The Liar seems a bit more layered. It tells the story of Adrian Healey, and shifts back and forth through various stages of his life. We see his English ‘public school’ adolescence – a lovelorn time spent genuinely yearning for Hugo Cartwright, one of his fellow classmates, while trying on other personae for size – rebel, actor, schemer. We see him a few years later studying at Cambridge and later still traveling to Hungary in the employ of one Professor Trefusis. On A Mission. Adrian’s mendacity proving to be his most appealingly useful trait. The one thing others can count on.
There’s a thriller bubbling underneath involving codes and ciphers, and a 70s update of the Enigma cipher machine. But all of the plot machinations serve to sharpen the focus on Adrian’s character. As Trefusis tells him:
“I am a student of language, Mr. Healey. You write with fluency and conviction, you talk with authority and control. A complex idea here, an abstract proposition there, you juggle with them, play with them, seduce them… You recognize patterns, but you rearrange them when you should analyze them. In short, you do not think. You have never thought… You cheat, you short-cut, you lie. It’s too wonderful… You are a hound of hell and you know it.”
As good as The Liar is, Stephen Fry’s second novel, The Hippopotamus, is even better. His Ted Wallace is a giant of a character – a sly, sarcastic, 60-something jaded poet and critic. Unfailingly polite when social or family circumstances dictate, he saves up his venom and unleashes it on us, the gentle reader.
The story is this: Recently fired as a newspaper theatre critic, Wallace is retained by the terminally-ill niece of an old family friend to, essentially, pay an extended visit to that old friend and his family, and report “anything unusual” back to her. The jaded poet becomes a spy. We, and he, are left in the dark as to what, exactly, we should be looking for. But gradually the fog clears. In an astonishingly moving bit of back-story, we learn of Albert, the secular, spiritually disenchanted Austrian-Jewish grandfather, who returned to Vienna in the 1930s to try to bring his cousins back to England with him:
In that awful little room with its imponderably hateful smell, a smell that took all the dignity and colour and strength away from him, his tweeds, his expensive luggage and his small blue passport, in that dreadful stinking room he swore a new loyalty, to his people – his stupid, moaning and cosmically irritating people, whose religion he scorned, whose culture he despised, whose mannerisms and prejudices he abominated.
We also, in the present, get a sense of the unusual circumstances that Ted was dispatched to uncover. And what began as scathing social satire with a bit of a mystery gradually forming underneath, turns into a rich, stunningly written novel full of tension and eventual catharsis. It’s a fantastic read.
There are several other novels and at least one memoir in the Fry and Laurie canon, and I’d be astonished if they all weren’t written with the same penetrating wit and fierce intelligence. The halls of Cambridge would expect nothing less.