Monday, November 15, 2010


Will the real Elmore Leonard please stand up?

Djibouti, Mr. Leonard’s latest offering, reads as if it has been written by two separate authors. The first 130 pages of the novel are some of the dullest I have read this year, bar none; the last 150 comprise one of the most interesting thrillers I have come across in 2010.

The premise of the book is a good one. Award-winning documentary maker Dara Barr has come to Djibouti with her trusted cameraman to film Somalian pirates in the act of hijacking western ships and holding them for ransom. Xavier, her 72-year-old cameraman, secures a boat and the two set out on the open sea in search of a few pirates they can call their own. Dara believes, rightly, as it turns out, that even Somalian pirates want to be in the movies, and she is confident that she and Xavier can talk their way out of any trouble they might find themselves in.

But here comes the problem. Rather than show all of this lead-in action in real time, Leonard chooses to have Dara and Xavier discuss it as they think about how they will edit all the raw film footage they have accumulated. The resulting pages make for some excruciatingly dull reading - surprisingly, even to the dialogue between the two main characters. I say “surprisingly” because, as he reminds the reader in the second half of the book, well written dialogue is consistently one of the best things about an Elmore Leonard novel.

When the pair of filmmakers stumbles onto an al-Qaeda plot to blow up a huge liquid natural gas tanker at an LNG terminal in the U.S., and Leonard finally shifts to a real-time narrative, the book takes off and becomes the thriller I expected it would be. As he so often does, Leonard surrounds his main characters with others that are so cleverly rendered that they begin to outshine the characters on which the book is centered (Dara and Xavier). Readers will definitely be entertained by this cast of characters: Billy Wynn, a rich Texan who seems to have some unusually close ties to American intelligence agencies; Helene, high fashion model and Billy’s girlfriend who is on an around-the-world cruise with Billy to see if she can qualify as marriage-material; James Russell, a black ex-con from America, and one of al-Qaeda’s finest bombers and assassins; and two rather ineptly comical pirate leaders just trying to make a dishonest buck for themselves before they get shot by someone.

The second half of Djibouti makes its first half worth the effort. I did come very close to missing it, but I am happy that I did not give up on the book too soon to get there.

Rated at: 2.5
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. I've heard some people say they have the "100 page rule", if it isn't good in the first 100 pages they quit. I can't bring myself to do that but there have been books that I wished I had, but others like this one, reward the reader for their patience. I still prefer to be grabbed in the first couple chapters! :)

  2. Rather than show all of this lead-in action in real time, Leonard chooses to have Dara and Xavier discuss it

    This was my frustration with "Wolf Hall" (along with all the pronouns without antecedent). All the action took place offstage. I don't want to have to piece everything together by dialogue. Just show me what happens. Everyone but one person in my book club hated the book.

  3. Andy, I know a bunch of people who have modified that rule. Instead of reading a full 100 pages before allowing themselves to abandon a book, they read 100 pages minus their age...the theory being that they have less time to waste every year. :-)

  4. I was shocked to see a writer of Leonard's stature stoop to that, Factotum...equally surprised that at least one mainstream reviewer remarked at how clever Leonard was for taking that kind of risk. Yeah, riiiiiiight.