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Sunday, October 24, 2010


By Elmore Leonard
(2/5 stars)

Elmore Leonard has written a lot of books, but the only one I've ever read is "Get Shorty" that I enjoyed. Still, I thought I'd seize the chance to get a free copy of his latest effort, "Djibouti." Now I wish I hadn't.

The first third of this book was torture to plow through. Leonard lost me on the first page with this sentence: "By 8:30 the once-a-week Air France was in, the stairway wheeled up and a gang of Arabs and Dara Barr coming off, the Foreign Legion checking out the passengers, seeing could they tell a terrorist they saw one." It's really the last part of the sentence that threw me. It sounds like it's missing two different "ifs" in there. I suppose this was supposed to be from Xavier's point of view, though it's so early in the book that we don't really know anything about Xavier yet, so at that point it didn't make much sense to me.

After that, so much of the first 100 pages is just Xavier and Dara sitting around talking about what they shot. It's extremely boring. I got to thinking, "How can a book about pirates be this DULL?"

The thing is, the book isn't really about Somali pirates. That's just what the book jacket might say. Really it's about the harebrained plot of a wanna-be bin Laden that intersects with a couple of documentary filmmakers, a pirate, a crazy lawyer, and an eccentric billionaire. (Are any billionaires not eccentric? In books and movies it seems they're always up to some crazy scheme or another. I suppose there probably are noneccentric ones who just stay in their mansions and sip their brandy.) What this reminds me of is less "Get Shorty" than the Coen brothers movie "Burn After Reading" that I described as "a battle of wits between the witless."

So here are all the players. First there's Dara Barr, the documentary filmmaker who like all women in this type of story is a bit of a tomboy but would probably be attractive if she bothered to clean up. Her cameraman is an old man named Xavier, who previously worked with her during Hurricane Katrina. They come to Djibouti to make a movie about the Somali pirates. One of the pirates is Idris, who would like to be sophisticated and like many of the pirates has found the good life by ransoming Western ships. Harry is a British-Arab lawyer who ostensibly tries to talk the pirates out of pirating. Also there is the billionaire Billy and his hot girlfriend Helene, who will only become Billy's wife if she completes a trip around the world by boat with him. Billy is sort of a conspiracy theory type who has the money to waste paying people to feed him information to fuel these theories.

Then there's Jama, who's an American who converted to Islam in prison. He made contacts with al-Qaeda and has been doing some work for them. He comes to Djibouti as well, hoping to make a big splash.

As I said, most of it was pretty boring to me. I think it would have been better if it'd just stuck to the pirates. The Somali pirates are relatively new enough to be interesting and fresh. Maybe too new and fresh for an octogenarian white guy in Detroit to write about, so instead he falls back on the old terrorism story while leaving just enough of the pirate thing so they can put it on the book jacket and make you think that's what you're reading about.

Anyway, if you've read a lot of Leonard books maybe you'd like this more, because it's probably the same general thing he's done a dozen times before. I really could never get overly interested in the slow-moving plot or the thin characters. Of special note (which I almost forgot to mention) was the terribly contrived way in which Dara figures out Jama's real name.  Just really implausible.

It makes me think, though, someone should update "Casablanca" and set it in Djibouti with Somali pirates. I'm sure Dara and Xavier could think up who to cast in it.

That is all.

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