To say that Elmore "Dutch" Leonard is a legend in the crime-fiction genre might understate the case. When the American master arrived at London’s Savoy Hotel a couple of years ago to collect a lifetime achievement award, an assemblage of his writing peers hovered around the man, resisting the urge to touch his sleeve or kiss his distinctly non-Papal ring. Such genuflection is probably appropriate – and certainly understandable.
Now, after a series of novels that were regarded as marking time, here is Djibouti, in which the 85-year-old writer reminds us just why his critical standing is so high. As well as being something like a return to past glory (notably in the sardonic, diamond-hard dialogue), there is the hot topicality of the subject: ruthless Somali pirates wreak havoc of the east coast of Africa. There may be a dozen novels in the offing with this theme, but the octogenarian is first off the mark.
Dara Barr is an American maker of documentaries whose subjects have included the ill-treatment of Bosnian women and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her latest assignment is to travel to Djibouti, between Somalia and Eritrea, to obtain footage of the scourge of the region: the modern Somali pirates. In a dangerous quest, she encounters the slippery diplomat Harry, for whom no enterprise lacks a touch of the criminal; Texan billionaire Billy Wynn, trying on a Hemingway-style hunting lifestyle; and the fundamentalist African-American James/Jama, an Al Qaeda convert with murderous designs. The final element in this combustible mix is a Somali pirate chief, the soigné, BMW-owning Idris, whose hijacking of a tanker carrying liquefied natural gas is to put everyone involved in extreme danger.
Leonard admirers will be glad to find that he again has the blood of his younger self coursing through his veins. The new setting has re-energised his creative batteries. In America, there was talk that this was something of a roman à clef, with the female director based on Katherine Bigelow (of The Hurt Locker fame), while her confidant and assistant, the elderly-but-capable Xavier, is a Leonard self-portrait (with their incipient sex life as a touch of wish-fulfilment). None of this matters a jot: all that counts is the fact that Leonard has found his mojo again, and has us in the palm of his hand.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99, 279pp.
More in The Independent