288 pages, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Review by Paul Fenton
This is hard.
God, I want to give this a good review, I so want to. This is Elmore Leonard, for God’s sake. He doesn’t write duds. His stories are tight, his characters are direct and their motivations grow and solidify as they develop through the story ...
Usually. This time, not so much.
Djibouti provides a very different premise to the more typical “let’s make some money and kill a few people while we’re at it” story. We have a cast of characters who aren’t exactly off-piste for an Elmore Leonard book – Dara the documentary film-maker, Xavier her older streetwise assistant, Harry the playboy diplomat, Idris the pirate king, and Billy the billionaire rogue. A potentially volatile mix of personalities and backgrounds, and when they’re all thrown in together in the small African port town of Djibouti, well, they ...
They ... um ...
To be frank, they hang around town waiting for someone (I’m looking at you Mr Leonard) to tell them what to do.
At first I thought this was going to be a departure from the usual kind of gritty crime story Leonard writes, as we follow Dara while she plans her documentary of Somali pirates, securing a boat and supplies while Xavier arms himself with a pistol. This all seemed promising. I felt their excitement, the anticipation of their quest to film the exploits of the pirates. I thought, how is Elmore Leonard going to handle this kind of story?
Answer: by skipping all that stuff. I turned the page and bam, they’re already back from their month-long voyage. It was jarring. We get a few verbal recollections of some of their encounters as they watch video material they’ve gathered. That’s it. It turns out that Somali pirates are not what Djibouti is about. No, it’s about al Qaeda. Kind of. And making a Hollywood movie. I think.
I’m not sure where to stop describing the story, where the spoilers might creep in, because it ambles along at such an apathetic rate. Sure, there’s some shooting and killing and great dialogue and all that good stuff, but my reaction to a lot of that was: big whoop. I just didn’t care what was going on. The characters themselves didn’t seem to care what was going on either. The only one of them who seemed to act with any kind of motivation was the al Qaeda baddy, James Russell AKA Jama Raisuli, but even he can only make half-hearted attempts at killing the cast. He also has ambitions to blow up an LPG tanker anchored in the bay for little other reason than it’s there, and wouldn’t it be cool to make it go kablooey? None of this action is helped by the telling: often one of the cast telling the others what just happened, not giving the reader a look-in when it actually is happening. It was like listening to someone describe a movie they’ve just seen.
Djibouti could possibly make a good movie with the right treatment, but as a novel it’s poor by Elmore Leonard’s usually high standards. He‘s still awesome, and I will still read anything else he writes, but Djibouti djiblows.