Judging from Elmore Leonard's latest, the old guy's still got it

By Anna Mundow
Saturday, January 22, 2011; C03

Elmore Leonard, at 85, is unlikely to be described as writing at the height of his powers, and that fact must surely make this master of irony smile. Indeed, in his new adventure novel, "Djibouti," Leonard casts an amused eye on male aging and on male vanity, a weakness that he has lethally skewered in his fiction for decades.

"It's too bad you're an old man," says filmmaker Dara Barr, flirting with 72-year-old Xavier LeBo, her longtime assistant from New Orleans. They're in Djibouti, a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, to make a documentary about Somali pirates. Dara is a familiar Leonard character, the hot ticket with brains (and, in this case, a strong resemblance to real-life film director Kathryn Bigelow). But it is Xavier's world-weary eyes that take in every detail on this alien African terrain crowded with terrorists and assorted criminals. Soon he and Dara meet the swaggering pirates who make millions hijacking ships, "the bad boys with AKs and . . . rockets," as Xavier describes them. "I said to one of 'em I'm talkin to in a club last night, 'You always high you out to sea?' The man say, 'If we not drunk, what are we doin in a skiff and think we can seize an oil tanker?' "

The pirate story seems an odd one for Leonard: too big, too exotic and too political. But grifters, it turns out, are grifters whatever the scam, and Leonard portrays some doozies here. In the early chapters, though, the action is muted as Dara and Xavier review the footage they've shot offshore among the pirates. Leonard cleverly shifts back and forth between what Dara is viewing on her computer and what actually happened as she filmed. This cleverness wears thin, however, and we begin to fear that Leonard, like Xavier, is a little in love with Dara.

Fortunately, other engaging characters materialize: Billy, the Texas billionaire who is sailing the world with his test-wife, Helene; Harry, the shady, Oxford-educated, half-Saudi investigator for the International Maritime Organization; Idris, a strutting pirate captain; and Qasim, an al-Qaeda leader. But Leonard's voice seems absent, and we miss it.

Then, midway through the novel, there it is: "Before he was Jama Raisuli or Jama al Amriki he was James Russell, pronounced Russell: picked up twice on suspicion of armed robbery and released. . . . This was how James Russell came to Coleman FCI in the middle of inland Florida to hang with Muslims, a means of surviving in here, twenty years old doing his first fall."

From the moment James appears, Leonard's pirates and terrorists and even Dara herself seem to fade by comparison. An instantly recognizable type from numerous Leonard novels - the sharp, funny, ruthless operator - James is nevertheless fresh. He converts to Islam in jail, to al-Qaeda on the outside, and meets his hero, Qasim, in Djibouti. "I'm known to rob banks," James tells the legendary terrorist, "when I don't have nothing to do." Now, James has memorized the cellphone number he can use to detonate the liquefied gas tanker hijacked by Idris and his pirate gang. That's if Billy, the Texas billionaire, doesn't get there first.

A caper, then, is what we have, one that more closely resembles a heist action movie than it does "Get Shorty," "Cat Chaser" or any other Leonard crime novel. There is a political context, certainly, and plenty of information on the mechanics and economics of modern-day piracy, but reading about all that feels like treading water while we wait for the big boom.

Nevertheless, the fact that James Russell is more riveting than any havoc he may wreak proves just how deft - and surprising - a writer Leonard still is. Here violence arrives unannounced and stone cold. One of James's victims, for example, "turned his head and Jama shot him where you would shoot yourself if you saw it was that time, in the temple." When James briefly ensnares a naive American homosexual, what follows is appallingly brutal, yet James, like so many of Leonard's memorable villains, remains disconcertingly engaging. And as his path converges with that of Xavier and Dara, the flirtation between the young filmmaker and her aging sidekick becomes something far more powerful than either one expects.

In "Djibouti," Leonard slyly shows us what the old man can still do.

Mundow is a literary columnist for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.


By Elmore Leonard

Morrow. 279 pp. $26.99

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