Elmore Leonard's formula still works

Book Review: "Djibouti," by Elmore Leonard. Morrow, $26.99.

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The method is the same: Elmore Leonard's street-smart dialogue and fast-moving action in a world where you can't always tell the good guys from the bad, although you know the bad are going to be in the majority (and may very likely win in the end).

But in "Djibouti" his setting and characters are even more offbeat than usual.

The Republic of Djibouti is a tiny state in northeastern Africa, bordering, among other countries, Somalia, where a notorious group of pirates is terrorizing Western ships and making huge amounts in ransom.

It is suspected that a good deal of the money is going to terrorist organizations, but in Djibouti, individual pirates are living quite well and being celebrated as heroes for saving their country from havoc brought on by greedy Western corporations.

Enter Dara Barr, a documentary filmmaker from New Orleans, and her sidekick, Xavier LeBo, a 6-foot-6, 72-year-old street-smart African-American. She is fearless to the point of naivete, but her spunk seems to disarm most of her would-be enemies.

When they arrive in Djibouti, Dara and Xavier encounter a wealthy pirate who drives a Mercedes, and a Texas billionaire on a yacht with his girlfriend, who pretends to like sailing in order to convince him to marry her.

They also come in contact with some dangerous terrorists, notably one Jama Raisuli, aka James Russell, a black American convert who has no compunction about killing anyone who gets close enough to him to be a threat.

Dara manages to photograph all of them, with or without their knowledge or consent. She might use the footage for another documentary, or as the basis for a fictionalized Hollywood docudrama.

Looming over the whole plot, and too close for comfort to Djibouti, is the Aphrodite, a ship containing enough explosives to dwarf the heat and power of an atomic bomb. Whether the Aphrodite will explode off the African coast or in a New Orleans port is also a matter of concern.

The Texas billionaire would have it explode in waters near Djibouti; Jama is hoping to do the damage in his native land.

As always, Mr. Leonard manages to mix serious crime with mindless mayhem, geared to his cynical yet somehow moral view of the world. He also throws in a sprinkling of sex -- straight and gay, vanilla and kinky -- just enough to keep things from becoming dull or predictable.

This is not his best novel, but it's a little different from the others. Like everything he writes, "Djibouti" is provocative and fun.


Robert Croan is a senior editor of the Post-Gazette.


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