Djibouti, the latest thriller from the word processor of prolific novelist Elmore Leonard, starts out as a story about Somali pirates, which morphs into an al Qaeda terrorist plot gone astray. It is a complicated story filled with surprising twists and turns that will have you wondering who the good guys are and who the bad. And while some of what goes on in the book is kind of difficult to buy even for a thriller, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief the book is a fast-paced read with a lot of excitement.
Leonard does manage to create some unusual characters, unusual in the sense that they are not the kind you would expect to meet in your run of the mill thriller. The heroine, Dara Barr, is an Academy Award-winning documentary film maker. Beautiful, of course, but no young airhead, she is in Djibouti to make a film about piracy on the high seas.
Her right hand man is Xavier LeBo, a six foot African-American who not only serves as her camera man, but makes sure to look after her well being. He is strong, smart, and sexy and would you believe a septuagenarian.
Then there’s a big-bellied Texas billionaire who wants to be a hero and his model girl friend who wants to be a billionaire’s wife. Throw in a pirate leader who is charming and urbane, an Arab diplomat who is supposed to be doing something about solving the piracy problem, but is also a gun runner, and an al Qaeda leader who refuses to talk and you’ve got a cast of characters ripe for thrills.
All you need is a master villain. Enter James Russell, alias Jama Raisuli, an American ex-con converted to Islam and looking to make an explosion on the world scene.
So you’ve got hot subjects straight out of the news and a group of unusual characters. Mix all of these ingredients together and put them in an exotic setting and you’ve should have a recipe for a successful novel. And for the most part, Leonard has one, but there are a couple of caveats.
He really doesn’t get as much out of his setting as he might. There is no real feeling for what a place like Djibouti is like. There is some description, but it is minimal. Here for example Dara and Xavier are led “into the heart of the African quarter, winding through streets of litter and crumbling walls. No different than it was thirty years ago. . . . Who needs fresh cement on the walls when you got khat to graze on.” Khat, the drug of Somali choice, seems to be the essential defining quality of the country. It is more a tourist’s view of the area than an insider’s account. The exotic possibilities of the setting could surely have been more effectively mined.
Some of Leonard’s narrative technique seems overly complex and unnecessarily distances the reader from the events being described. All of that part of the novel that deals with Dara and Xavier filming the pirates and their meeting with the jihadists is narrated after the fact, as the two documentarians review their footage on a computer back in their hotel in Djibouti. As they watch what they filmed, they comment on what happened. It is almost as if you were watching one of those director’s commentaries that often come as DVD extras.
The biggest problem is that it kills all suspense, if you had thought the film makers were in any kind of danger, you know that they came out of it without any problem. Fortunately, Leonard gets away from that kind of second hand narrative for the last half of the book.
When Elmore Leonard gets going as he does in the last half of this book, he can keep you on the edge of your chair. He’s got a villain who reeks with evil. He’s got a cute little heroine who runs around her room in shorts and a bra. He’s got a 70-year-old romantic hero. He’s got Horny Goat Weed, a magic elixir you can buy from a Chinese doctor of sorts. Who could ask for more?