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There's nowhere Elmore Leonard can't go


For his 44th book - released to coincide with his 85th birthday - master crime writer Elmore Leonard has gone his farthest afield.

Djibouti is set in that country on the Horn of Africa. It's a mysterious, exotic place seething with Somali pirates, Arab terrorists, good guys and bad guys (whom you really can't tell apart) and angle-playing adventurers of all stripes.

Now, we know Leonard is a champ when he sets his gritty books in big cities like Detroit or Miami. He's also long demonstrated his wizardry with the Western. And he's successfully taken us back to Depression-era America and even Cuba at the time of the Spanish-American War.

But Djibouti - a place the author cops to never having visited-

Well, with this guy, why not- The setting could be Neptune and it would still work. Location never really matters in an Elmore Leonard novel. His books' keys are diamond-hard dialogue, bevies of colorful characters, abrupt violence and plots with more twists than a Chubby Checker album.

All are on full, glorious display in Djibouti.

Documentary filmmaker Dara Barr, who won an Oscar for her work on post-Katrina New Orleans, has come to Djibouti to explore the possibilities of a new film on Somali pirates. They could make a terrific subject: poor, khat-chewing, AK-47-toting thugs in skiffs who capture big ships for bigger ransoms. Dara scores when she's introduced to Idris, a pirate who also lives a fairly sophisticated life in Djibouti.

The filmmaker and her sidekick, Xavier (a wily, 72-year-old seaman with a penchant for Horny Goat Weed and an eye on his boss), spend a month out at sea filming. Along the way, they run into a couple of would-be al-Qaida terrorists with designs on blowing up a ship filled with liquid natural gas. Oh, yeah, there's also a champagne-swilling American millionaire and his girlfriend who keep popping up on his yacht. Their motives and affiliations are unknown ... and completely suspect.

And so it plays out in dozens of tight chapters. As the characters intertwine and spar in that trademark terse, tough and often very funny dialogue, the danger in an already volatile situation inflates until it reaches a literally explosive ending.

In the best sense, Leonard's books have always been cinematic - full of action, entertaining talk, exquisite pacing. Djibouti is no different. However, the filmmaking theme of the book - and perhaps Leonard's own extensive history with the movies - has coaxed him into getting a little too cute here.

Especially early in the book, we find scenes of Dara and Xavier discussing how their film will come together. How they will edit the parts. What will go where. They've already shot the footage and are alluding to scenes that the readers will eventually get to in jumpy fashion through flashbacks. It's a bit of unnecessary, confusing artifice that gets in the way of Leonard's usual stripped-down, propulsive dynamo. However, even with a little gunk on the gaskets, Djibouti is still a pretty sleek ride.

And you really can't blame an 85-year-old for stretching.

John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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