In the veteran novelist and screenwriter's most recent book, two American documentary filmmaking partners take a daring trip to film modern-day pirates as they work and play in the tiny titular country bordering Somalia. As the partners log more and more footage, they discuss how they will cobble together what they’ve seen and shot into a movie. And since the book itself is written in the style of a film script – with stage direction as opposed to description – narrator Tim Cain has plenty of material to perform, rather than just read. He does so in the style of the book – part film noir, part post-9/11 action flick.
When Dara Barr, the director, arrives in Djibouti at the beginning of the novel, her cameraman and partner, Xavier LeBo, is already there to meet her. Xavier continues to be one step ahead of the other characters throughout the novel. He’s a 6-foot-6 sage, an ex-sailor from New Orleans, expert with his fists and with a gun. Xavier is a saint, but Elmore Leonard doesn't idealize him. His scene-stealing turn in the novel is due, in part, to Cain’s cool reading of him. He's self-assured, but that doesn't mean he can't also be vulnerable. Cain nails a scene in which Xavier visits a Chinese herbalist to obtain Horny Goat Weed – which is exactly what it sounds like. For a novel that requires the suspension of disbelief much of the time, Xavier is empathically human.
That’s not to say that the suspensions of disbelief aren’t fun. Cain also reads Billy Wynn, a Texas oil billionaire with a Texas twang who sails around the world on his yacht with his girlfriend, a model named Helen, to decide whether she’s marriage material. (Cain’s portrayal of the jaded, tough, yet also tender and curious Helen is also a standout performance.) When Billy spots a tanker carrying highly combustible liquid natural gas off the coast of Djibouti, he pieces together a plot that may be in the offing to blow it up. From there it’s a race to find out who’ll blow up the ship and when, and the listener need do nothing more than sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Maggie Frank