February 9, 2012 by markstani
Elmore Leonard is eighty-six years old and pushing towards his half-century of novels, but there can be no denying the contemporary relevance of the man many call America’s greatest living crime writer.
Topics don’t come much more pertinent these days than Somali pirates, so on the face of it, a book by Leonard, styled on the dust jacket as ‘Hollywood’s favourite crime writer’, ought to be a match made in heaven: a fast-paced, high-stakes, high seas thriller.
Sadly, apart from the occasional swag-bag of ransom loot, the only thing Leonard succeeds of hooking in the course of Djibouti (pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is a knotted net of ‘lawless Somali’-type cliches, choppy dialogue and an untidy, contrived plot: less Hollywood-on-the-high-seas, more bathtub buccaneering.
Calling it a disappointment is an understatement. The set-up is superb, which adds to the acute sense of a missed opportunity. Dara Barr is an Oscar-winning documentary maker seeking her next challenge after shooting successful films in Bosnia and post-Katrina New Orleans. She sets out for Djibouti with her friend and sometime assistant, the ageing, engaging Xavier, with the intention of hunting down the pirates who have eluded the might of the world’s navies for the best part of a decade, and filming the true life tales behind their daring exploits.
And that’s exactly what she does. Just like that. ‘Dara, we got us a pirate’, says Xavier on pretty much their first night out in Djibouti. Abruptly, we smash-cut to three weeks later, in the course of which Dara has sailed over to Eyl, the hub of piratical activity where the ransomed ships line the harbour, witnessed shootings, drownings and ransoms being dropped from helicopters, and befriended Idris, the pirate in question, who, when he is not hijacking oil tankers, squeals around town in a brand new Mercedes.
All very exciting – or it would have been, if we’d been privy to any of it. Leonard employs a self-defeating narrative structure in which the incidents are described retrospectively by Dara and Xavier as they review the video footage from their trips. Inevitably, this renders the dialogue terribly clunky. ‘Watch – we cut to the Italian destroyer’, says Dara at one point: how’s that for telling-not-showing? This unnecessary conceit wrings all tension and suspense from the plot: we already know what happened, simply by virtue of them being there telling the tale.
If the plot is a little over-simplistic, it doesn’t help that it’s played out among a cast of ultra-macho, broadly unsympathetic characters, including a Texan billionaire and wannabe Hemingway who tacks up and down the Somali coast at will on his multi-million dollar yacht, with a model girlfriend who seems utterly impervious to the grave threat she faces, at one time seriously suggesting that they “go ashore and stretch our legs”.
In Leonard’s Somalia, the chances are they’d be just fine. By this point, Dara has (we learn later) pretty much made Eyl her second home, hauling Xavier along to visit Idris (who rivals Johnny Depp for nautical niceness) at his luxury pad – all with an ease which implies a paddle over the local pond to take tea with the neighbours.
By the time Dara and Xavier have dug deep enough, and embroiled themselves in a vague plot to hand over al-Qaeda terrorists to the US Embassy while a stolen tanker filled with lethal liquified gas lurks close by, you can almost hear the explosions of excitement in Hollywood. Sadly, you can’t help hoping it’s this whole sorry cast who are first to go up in smoke.
All of which is a shame, because it’s a subject well worth exploring in fiction, and Lenoard does raise some thought-provoking issues early in the book, mostly about the moral right of Somalis to make a living from the vessels which traverse their waters and pollute what could have been an even more lucrative fishing industry. The seminal Somali pirate novel still waits to be written. Leonard fans will shunt up their bookshelves for his next novel, ‘Raylan’, which is set in Kentucky. They say Leonard’s back to his best, now he’s shed his sea legs.