Dara Barr, documentary filmmaker and protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s latest, Djibouti, is a tough girl. This hard-driving, hard-drinking Academy Award winner has to be tough, after all. Along with her trusty cameraman, a genial six-and-a-half-foot-tall African-American chap named Xavier, she’s made films of Bosnian women, neo-Nazis and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Dara’s latest, riskiest project is filming the pirates of Somalia, who, fortified by cheekfuls of khat and AK47s slung over their shoulders, think nothing of taking over supertankers from their rickety little skiffs. The piracy brings in millions of dollars that fund everything from luxury cars to prostitutes to beachfront mansions to more khat. Loot floating around brings complications, and things get very complicated very quickly.
Dara and her friends quickly get mixed up with an Al Qaeda psychopath who doesn’t want people to know his real name as much as he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Dara and Xavier encounter this maniac several times and are no more frightened of him than they would be of any other drinking buddy—an impressive feat, and one that’s necessary if they want to finish their movie. Then there’s the tanker full of liquid natural gas—a floating bomb, in other words—and rumor has it that the killer’s jihadi pals would just love to light it up if a cut of ransom money isn’t forthcoming. That is, unless someone else gets to the ship first.
Told in short, punchy chapters, Djibouti, with its East African setting and focus on topical Somali piracy, might seem a departure for Leonard, but it’s not. Once again, he concentrates on crooks, moviemakers and other hustlers, folks whose moral compass, if they have one, might be a little askew, who let nothing get in the way of their goals, and whose bravery seems indistinguishable from foolhardiness. Djibouti is a nasty good time.