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Onyx reviews: Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

Dara Barr, a documentary filmmaker, and her aide-de-camp, Xavier LeBo, rent a boat and set out in the dangerous and difficult waters of the Gulf of Aden to interview Somali pirates for her next project. Dara previously explored rape in Bosnia, neo-Nazi extremists and earned an Academy Award for her film on Katrina, shot during the hurricane in her home town. She's smart, brave, charming, and the reputation earned by her award-winning films greases wheels and opens doors. Simply the promise that someone will appear in one of her movies garners her discounts and access normally denied to others. 

She has an angle that she wants to explore. After reading a newspaper article claiming that the pirates are heroes to local villagers, she wants to depict them as misunderstood underdogs who've turned to piracy because other nations have fished out their waters. Their four-week adventure would probably make for an fascinating narrative. However, Leonard makes an interesting and questionable choice: he skips ahead to their return and puts Dara and Xavier together in the editing room, where they try to figure out how to assemble hours and hours of footage together into a coherent narrative. This means that the book has a lot of exposition where Dara and Xavier remind each other of the things that happened to them in the intervening days.

Though this leads to a talky narrative, it gives Leonard the opportunity to discuss the nature of storytelling, as Dara and Xavier debate the possible approaches they might take with the movie. Dara's original concept, they realize, won't work. The pirates they meet are hardly underdogs. They're debonair, smart men who live in luxury while awaiting ransom payments for the ships in their captivity. Many of them are willing to play to the camera, but Dara and Xavier are armed with high-definition miniature cameras to capture the candid reactions of those who aren't. Dara considers turning her documentary into a feature film. Xavier says that Naomi Watts should play her.

Their headquarters is Djibouti, a tiny, predominantly Muslim county in Northeast Africa (the so-called Horn), bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia and the Red Sea. Its port (Ethiopia's primary link to the sea) is strategic, the gateway to the Middle East. It's a hot spot, and not just because of the climate.

Leonard's researchers have done an impressive job of providing the author with the details of the exotic geography and the geopolitics he needs to create a convincing backdrop for Djibouti. He works in real life events, such as the 2009 attack on the Maersk Alabama, the first American ship and crew taken by Somali pirates. The story gained momentum when sharpshooters took out three pirates holding the captain hostage with three well-placed bullets.

The focus of the novel changes when the pirates take the Aphrodite, a liquefied natural gas tanker. Among her crew are two undercover al-Qaeda operatives who may have had other plans for the boat, such as turning it into a floating bomb after it sails into one a half dozen American ports equipped to handle such a ship. 

It wouldn't be an Elmore Leonard novel without a cast of fast-talking, smart-mouthed, colorful characters. First, there's Xavier, a six-foot six, 72-year-old black man with sailing experience who knows how to handle a camera. He flirts with Dara during their month at sea, but she doesn't take him seriously until he restocks his supply of horny goat weed and bets Dara that he can satisfy her.

A shady Oxford-educated Saudi diplomat Ari Ahmed Sheikh Baka, who calls himself Harry, presents himself as an intermediary between the outlaws and the International Maritime Organization. Billy Winn is a rich Texan playboy armed with an elephant rifle and several cases of champagne who auditions potential wives by seeing how well they fare aboard his yacht on a round-the-world cruise. His latest "contestant" is Helene, a French fashion model with moxie who seems like Billy's match—if she marries Billy she'll be set for life. She says that he reminds her of Sterling Hayden's character from Dr. Strangleove.

Then there's Idris Mohammed, the suave pirate who has captured over a dozen ships in his illustrious career, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom. Finally, Jama Raisuli is an African American who converted to Islam while in prison, now an al-Qaeda operative who fiercely guards his original identity, James Russell (accent on the "sell"). Raisuli and his boss don't believe in suicide bombing, at least not for themselves. They're too valuable to the cause.

Idris and Harry, who acquire the collective nickname the Gold Dust Twins, plan to turn the al-Qaeda prisoners over to American authorities for millions, but their plan goes awry, as such things do in a Leonard novel. Everything and everyone converges on the Aphrodite for an explosive if slightly incredible finale. At 85 years old, Leonard is still going strong, even if some of his creative decisions are a little dubious.

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