The port-city capital of the tiny, strategically located country of Djibouti seems like foreign territory for Elmore Leonard, whose novels generally travel along the Detroit/Miami axis. But that doesn’t keep him from claiming the turf as his own in his latest novel. He travels far in Djibouti, but he still makes the place feel like Leonard country, a land populated by tart-tongued, morally ambiguous characters always working an angle, whether they’re trying to do good, make good, or commit an act of terrorism to rival 9/11.
That lattermost goal belongs to Djibouti’s memorable villain, Jama Raisuli, né James Russell, an American who converted to Islam in prison, joined al-Qaeda, and now wants to make his way back to the States. He plans to blow up something big along the way, however. Standing in his way: a Somali pirate, the pirate’s suspicious contact to the straight world, a documentary filmmaker named Dara, her looming septuagenarian assistant Xavier, and a champagne-chugging billionaire with a lot of time and firepower on his hands. In other words, it’s a classic lineup of Leonard characters. Only the setting has changed.
That isn’t always to the book’s benefit. After some early descriptions of Djibouti’s various neighborhoods, the setting fades into the background in favor of the action. But the characters remain vivid, as do their reasons for drifting to a place where everything seems possible with enough money and the right connections. Jama is a chillingly realized sociopath, and without offering any undue sympathy, Leonard at least explains why young men from the region might choose piracy over other pursuits. A more seductive instance of providing sympathy for the devil involves a model-turned-gold-digger so upfront with her motivations that she becomes sympathetic. More readily sympathetic: Dara and Xavier, an African-American New Orleans native and man-of-the-world who engages his boss in a slow-simmering flirtation, in spite of the decades dividing their ages. They work together and tease each other until the teasing becomes a sweet game of brinksmanship. It’s an ensemble piece, but in many ways, Xavier is Djibouti’s center. He’s determined to show he still has spirit, and is willing to attempt new adventures into his golden years, not unlike the man who created him.