Book review: 'Djibouti' by Elmore Leonard

Special to the Los Angeles Times


A Novel

Elmore Leonard

William Morrow: 280 pp., $26.99

Elmore Leonard's latest novel, his 44th, takes him beyond America's shores, way outside the criminal turfs — Detroit, Miami, Hollywood — he more or less owns, deep into unfamiliar territory that looks both tempting and grabbed-from-the-headlines. "Djibouti," as the title suggests, is set in the Horn of Africa and tells how Dara Barr, an accomplished documentarian, sets out with her right-hand man, Xavier LeBo, to make a film about Somali pirates hijacking ships in the Gulf of Aden.

Dara is determined, smart, a typically snappy and sexy Leonard heroine who has snagged an Oscar but still looks hot in shorts and a bra. Xavier is 6 feet 6, age 72, African American, über-cool. They got together on Dara's film about Hurricane Katrina, and now they're a team. As casting, the reader tends to think, not J-Lo and Clooney (who famously starred in Steven Soderbergh's version of "Out of Sight," the classic Leonard book from the early 1990s) but Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman or Samuel L. Jackson, a rather riskier and more unusual will they/won't they.

Dara and Xavier do indeed meet pirates and diplomats and dubious hangers-on, and those trusty stand-bys of unpredictable motives and unknowability of character motor the plot. There's Texas billionaire Billy Wynn, who seems to be hooked up with the CIA and whose big yacht is crewed by a witty and gorgeous redhead hoping to bag him as a husband. There's James Russell, a.k.a. Jama al Amriki or Jama Raisuli, a small-time Miami drug dealer who looked at Islam as the "way to go" (in its several meanings) and has reinvented himself as a terrorist. "He didn't see being a jihadist made him a traitor any more than selling blow or holding up a liquor store did." Now Jama has his eye on a hijacked tanker filled with liquefied natural gas. A floating bomb, in other words, and the compellingly villainous Jama is looking to do something spectacular for Al Qaeda.

As usual, Leonard uses dialogue and shifting point of view to forward intricacies and surprises. Less successfully he frames the bulk of the action within the device of Dora and Xavier reviewing the footage they've shot and quizzing each other about what they've seen and heard while trying to sort out what their final film might be. Leonard thus poses a big thematic question — how the heck do we mediate confused contemporary reality? — while fragmenting and confusing his narrative.

"Djibouti" feels too researched, and even then, some of the research is off. Nobody, for instance, ever "ran" with the Sloane Rangers, Sloanes not being some London version of the Crips but braying upper-class hoorays who wear Barbour jackets and claim kinship with Princess Di. Still, Leonard is Leonard, and much of the dialogue and internalized patterns of speech are simply to die for. When Xavier says "We got Pirates at home playing baseball for Pittsburgh," Leonard isn't dialing it in. The language, the lingo, always a big reason to turn to this author, pops at times; other times it unfurls with wit and grace. "Dara bent over and kissed Xavier's mouth, Xavier looking at her lollies right there in the tiny bikini top." "Djibouti" won't go down as vintage; but, well into his 80s, Leonard is still pushing at the edges of the genre one of whose undisputed masters he remains.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age."

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