Character. Plot. Dialogue. Who does it better than Elmore Leonard? With Djibouti, his 44th novel, he's at his rhythmic best, with an intricate plot, snappy patter and quirky players.
At the Djibouti airport, as Xavier LeBo waits for Dara Barr to arrive on an Air France flight from Paris, he watches Legionnaires checking out passengers, "seeing could they tell a terrorist they saw one." Dara walks toward Xavier, alongside an Arab guy in suit and tie, trim beard, bit of a Brit accent--Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, known as Harry.
Harry works with the IMO, the International Maritime Organization, and speaks to pirates directly, trying to convince them there's no future in piracy, what with the navies of the world after them. He is "the spokesman for what is proper in this African world, or what can be gotten away with, and what is outright improper, hijacking ships and holding them for ransom." He plays the good guy role with panache. Their meeting is fortuitous for Dara, since she and Xavier want to meet pirates.
Xavier is her 6'6" assistant--cameraman, grip, gofer and guide (with a gun)--72 to her 36, black to her blonde, but they're evenly matched in daring, nonchalance and cool. She's made several films--Bosnia, white supremacists--and won an Oscar for a documentary she and Xavier made during Katrina. Now they're in Djibouti to interview pirates, catch them hijacking a ship, get their story. Harry, already slightly enamored of Dara, promises to introduce her to an actual pirate, a gentleman rogue in the pirate's own eyes. They set up a plan to meet in two weeks in Eyl, a pirate stronghold on the Somali coast, where eight hijacked ships are being held.
The pirates go out on skiffs and take down huge tankers and cargo ships, getting at least $1 million each time. Xavier was talking to a pirate at a club the night before, he and his gang drinking and chewing khat. He asked the pirate if he was always high when he went out to sea. The pirate replied, "If we not drunk, what are we doing in a skiff and think we can seize an oil tanker?"
Dara is eager to see the boat Xavier has found for them, so before they go to the luxe Kempinski hotel, they drive through Djibouti to the docks; she's unprepared for what it's like--hot, open sewers, rats, dirty kinds of bugs, "like that beetle rolls up bat shit bigger'n he is." She starts to film for background, asks Xavier why they're driving through the slums, and he replies it's the upscale part of town where the Europeans live. Xavier's been through the Gulf 37 times--"I could be a tour guide, keep you from steppin in the sewers."
The port of Djibouti is a crazy mix of cruise ships, container ships and navy vessels. At the dock, they meet Billy Wynn and Helene, drinking champagne on Billy's 62-foot ketch, Pegaso. Billy's filthy rich (Oklahoma oil) and is taking Helene, a model he met in France, on a test cruise around the world. If she doesn't complain or get seasick, he'll consider marrying her. Billy is dying to meet Dara, has some ideas about the pirates. He's a bit of a cowboy, with a rich beach-comber look, a fast boat and a Holland & Holland elephant gun. Helene knows if she passes the test and marries Billy, when he dies she'll be unimaginably rich, and Billy is 20 years older than she. Dara notes it could be a long wait; he looks pretty healthy. "Cigars," Helene said. "You think I'm out of my mind?" She likes Billy, usually, but thinks he's often like Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, expects him to start talking about preserving "our precious bodily fluids" at any moment. Wherever they are, Billy will have at least one bottle of champagne, and an abiding interest in a Saudi tanker loaded with LNG--liquid natural gas--held in Eyl for months by hijackers.
Out on the town the first night with Billy and Helene, Xavier snags a pirate for Dara: Idris Mohammed, a smooth Somali in a white suit, commander of a gang of swashbucklers. Dara asks him if he considers himself a pirate; he says, "I think of us as the Coast Guard giving fines to ships that contaminate our seas, thousands of them leaving their waste in the waters we once fished." He attended Miami U in Ohio for a few years, and now has luxurious homes in Eyl and Djibouti; he's friends with Harry, the fixer. Both Idris and Harry are polished, hip and amusing, but somewhat dubious. They met over a gun, or more precisely, Harry sold Idris 400 Uzis from Tel Aviv. And now Harry is promoting a solution to end piracy. Or so he says, as he sips Scotch and watches CNN footage of the Maersk Alabama being taken, the first American vessel boarded in more than 200 years.
Dara and Xavier go out on their boat, the Buster, for 27 days. Back in her suite at the Kempinski, she puts together a rough cut of the film: Idris in his Mercedes trailing dust in the moonlight, Idris and his boys going out to hijack a ship, a light plane trying to drop bags of ransom on the deck of an oil tanker and missing, several pirates drownng trying to retrieve the loot, "pirate skiffs getting a beat going with quick cuts to faces she thought of as rimshots coming in a flow of action and gone." And footage of a new player, Jama, an African-American al Qaeda Muslim. Jama shot five people, but they don't have it on film. "We see bodies comin out of the house," Xavier said. "Then cut to us in our deck chairs sippin wine and chewin on khat. I noticed you favor it."
After Xavier gets back, they go over the film again, and the story develops as they edit and comment. Dara's point of view: The pirates have made $30 million hijacking ships, but have lost out on a $300 million market when they had to stop fishing due to toxic waste dumped in their seas and foreign fishing companies pushing them out. Xavier's point of view: they don't care about fishing, they stumbled into piracy, they're having fun and getting rich. "They enjoyin every minute of it. Gonna keep takin ships till it gets dangerous." He points out that she sees the pirates as good guys. "It's like you made a picture called Men of Bosnia and left out all the women they raped." But Dara's adamant: As long as they are underdogs, getting back at the shipping companies, they're okay. Or maybe they're being used by middlemen in London or Dubai who work out ransom negotiations and take a cut. Someone had to supply the weapons in the first place. Xavier says: shoot what you see, not what you want to see. Billy's point of view: follow the money. Who's financing? Al Qaeda? Other countries helping them with information about the ships? He thinks he has enough money to bribe people to help him get the answers; he thinks terrorists are playing a part in this. And warlords, clan elders, lawyers--all getting a cut.
As Dara and Xavier go over the footage, telling each other what they knew and are now finding out, piecing together the story to make it into a film, they come to think they're shooting a thriller rather than a documentary. "Two hours of Somali pirates in the can," Dara said, "and it's no longer about them." The picture takes a turn to a bigger story. "Mr. Billy Wynn knows what he's dong. Keep him in sight and you have your movie." And what Billy has in his sights is the Aphrodite, the hijacked LNG tanker.
He keeps watching the tanker, anchored off Eyl. He spends his days monitoring CNN reports, studying the hijacked ships with his binoculars, and making satellite calls to his informants in Djibouti and Qatar. He figures the Aphrodite is going to blow up a U.S. port.
When the Aphrodite took on its load of LNG in Yemen, two al Qaeda men--one Saudi, one American--boarded and planted explosives on the ship. But where, how and when will it be blown up? Dara and Xavier are somewhat disinterested observers at this point, but Billy is determined to get involved. Follow the ship, save America. "Trail her till I have to call the navy or sink her myself." Meanwhile, Idris and Harry are holding three men from the LNG ship--the first officer and the two terrorists. Harry shoots the first officer, but not the crewmen: Jama Raisuli, who used to be James Russell in the states, and Qasim al Salah, his brother in jihad. Idris and Harry plan to turn the two men over to the American Embassy and collect $6 million--$5 million for Qasim, an infamous terrorist; $1 million for Jama. "You didn't spread enough terror," Idris said to Jama, "to get your numbers up."
But then Idris and Harry realize that Jama could be worth much more than a million. An active traitor and a black man? Harry thinks at least $10, $25 million. Idris thinks he's is crazy, but the only way to find out is to discover Jama's real name; he won't tell them and neither will Qasim.
How do these strands converge? In surprising ways, as Billy and Helene trail the Aphrodite, Dara tries to find Jama for an interview, Xavier tries to keep them both alive and the Aphrodite sits, a ticking bomb.
Leonard writes a nifty story, weaving in current events and issues seamlessly; the real fun is listening to his characters talk and reading his descriptions. "Billy had on a pair of blue bikini briefs, his stomach trying to hide them." Jama, with a lot on his precarious plate in Djibouti, is cranky: "Being a terrorist was a pain in the ass when you weren't spreading terror." Dara, talking to Helene about the travails of being Billy's first and only mate:
"It must be a fine line [between] keeping up your appeal and staying high enough to see it through."
"It gets tricky," Helene said. "I have to watch I don't fall overboard."
And a typically laconic exchange between Xavier and Dara:
"And all hell broke loose," Xavier said. "You ever use that expression?"
"It broke loose shooting Katrina but I restrained myself."
The jazzy conversation is a concise riff, and the tension is low-key until the finish--hard to build high-key tension when everyone is swilling expensive champagne. The story takes unexpected turns, but unexpected only for Leonard newbies; one learns early in a Leonard novel to not trust what's laid out, to wait for the switch. In Djibouti, the wait produces a brilliant payoff, with a thrilling, adrenaline-laced ride to the end. --Marilyn Dahl