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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Piracy -- In the Low "C's"

By Elmore Leonard
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: HarperLuxe; 
October 12, 2010
ISBN-10: 0062008315
Read Oct. 15-19, 2012

Elmore Leonard is like Longfellow’s little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead: when he’s good, he's very, very good.  

But when he just mails it in, as he does in his 2010 offering, Djibouti, Leonard is . . .Well, not exactly horrid, but pretty disappointing.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Leonard is the winner of a Grand Master Edgar for mystery fiction, a Peabody for his FX television series, “Justified,” and lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards in 2012. A prolific writer straight out of the old pulp magazine mold, his work has been made into a number of popular films including 3:10 to Yuma (twice), Hombre, Joe Kidd, Get Shorty, 52 Pick-up, and Mr. Majestyk.

His most recent novel is Raylan, which will be the subject of a future review. Djibouti immediately preceded it.

In brief, Djibouti is the story of Dara Barr, an Oscar-winning documentary film maker who sets out with her friend and assistant, Xavier LeBo, to make a movie about the pirates that prey on merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia. 

She finds a suitable subject for her film, Idris Mohammed, and begins shooting, but a collection of the usual quirky Leonard characters keeps popping up to make the job more complicated.

There’s Billy Winn, a Texas millionaire and self-styled anti-terrorist, and his fashion model girlfriend, Helene; there’s Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, the shadowy representative of a group of African nations that want to stop piracy; and there’s Jama Raisuli, AKA James Russell, an armed robber and low-level drug dealer from Miami who studied the Koran in prison and later joined Al Qaeda as a terrorist.

What brings these folks together – besides Dara’s film project -- is a plot to blow up a massive natural gas tanker taken by Somali pirates when the vessel makes port in Djibouti, a dusty hub of intrigue where African pirates come to spend their ill-gotten money.  But, as is often the case in a Leonard tale, the floating bomb is simply a plot point around which the action is arranged.

Leonard has written dozens of novels that follow this same basic formula: a semi-smart crook goes after something of value and gets stymied by a hero – or heroine – who is just a little smarter and quite a bit luckier than the crook. 

Sometimes the hero is a cop; sometimes it’s another crook who happens to be more charming and less evil than the villain; sometimes it’s just an average person who is shrewd enough to stay ahead of the action and sidestep the bad guys at a key moment in the story.

Most of the time these books work because Leonard’s strength isn’t the complicated plots he comes up with, or his ability to keep readers in the dark about what is going on until the final reveal; rather, it’s the characters he draws and the way they relate to each other, usually in sharp-edged dialog that draws the reader in. 

Think of Chili Palmer, the leg breaker for a Miami loan shark in Get Shorty, or Raylan Givens, the itchy trigger-fingered U.S. Marshal in Pronto, Riding the Rap and the television series, Justified.

Unfortunately, sometimes Leonard is off his game.  To a certain extent this is the case with Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty that puts Chili Palmer in the L.A. music industry, and in Road Dogs, the sequel to Out of Sight: in both these novels, the central character seems to be going through the motions; the plotting is perfunctory; the dialog tends to fall flat.

Djibouti falls into the latter category. The story unfolds episodically, as if it was written originally as a serialization. Some characters aren't fully developed (for example, we're never really given a convincing reason why Raisuli became a terrorist, nor do we know why Bakar, the supposed anti-piracy agent, hangs around with the leader of a group of Somali pirates). 

Leonard seems to lose interest in some of the people he introduces early in the story, abruptly dropping them out of the action. And luck and coincidence are major mechanisms for moving the plot forward, which is usually the sign of a writer who is tired of his story and is simply trying to wrap things up.

The end of Djibouti, when it finally comes, is so sudden that readers may find themselves turning the last page to make sure the story is really finished.

Trust me: it is.

I have to admit that, despite these flaws, I kept reading. But I did so partly because Leonard is one of my favorite authors.  And he rewarded me by occasionally throwing something into the mix that had a little of the edge I have come to expect from his work; however, those little gems didn’t materialize frequently enough for me to recommend Djibouti.

I give the book three nooses. There were things in it I liked, but not enough of them to make it really first-rate Elmore Leonard.

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