KAHAWA by Donald E. Westlake


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Kahawa"" means ""coffee"" in Swahili--and this latest Westlake heist involves the 1977 hijacking of a Ugandan train carrying $6 million worth of coffee on its way to export. But, though the caper is arranged with the usual Westlakian ingenuity, the special appeal in this richer (and, alas, slower) thriller is the Uganda/ Kenya background, complete with juicy black-comic cameo appearances by Idi Amin himself. The heist mastermind is Amin's treasonous white adviser Baron Chase, who secretly contacts Mazar Balim, an Asian merchant now operating in Kenya (having been expelled by Amin), and persuades him to arrange the hijacking--with inside-knowledge from greedy Chase. But the actual dirty work is to be done by Balim's resident mercenary Frank Lanigan. . . and by Frank's old pal Lew Brady, a more idealistic sort of mere who brings along girlfriend Ellen, a topnotch pilot. So, while Frank and Lew make scouting expeditions along the Uganda/Kenya border to figure out the heist scenario (rail-switching, turntables, river-barge mechanics, etc.), Chase is arranging for the sale of the stolen coffee--a tricky international negotiation which involves an elderly ex-Nazi (""Swiss"") super-dealer, a courtly British trade-diplomat who is seduced by a comely young Ugandan, and glimpses of Amin (who looks ""like an aerial photograph of rolling countryside"" in his bulging uniform). Along the way, Lew gets grabbed and knocked around by Ugandan security; he also falls for an Indian girl whose coffee plantation will be used as a cover for the theft--which creates problems (rather soggy ones) with Ellen, who's being coarsely courted by Frank. There's a much more serious problem, however: Amin catches on to Chase's treachery! So, while the heist goes on as scheduled (with train cars being sent careening off cliffs), Chase is on the run--followed by Ugandan soldiers. And though the cob fee does start floating down-river as planned, Mazar Balim's beloved son gets left behind in the fracas; so noble Lew goes back into Uganda to find him--which he does with help from a now-forgiving Ellen and her plane. This dandy plot, unfortunately, is, at 480 pp., too sedately paced to generate maximum excitement. Other drawbacks: lack of a clear-focused, engaging hero (Lew's one of the book's few colorless characters) and some gratuitously crude sex-play. Still, if less than fully involving, this is a broad, textured adventure canvas--scenery, politics, Asians-in-Africa sociology, bitter comedy, tortures, finance, cinematic action--and fans of leisurely, ironic, discursive thrillers will find generous reading pleasure here.

Pub Date: March 15th, 1982
ISBN: 0446403431
Publisher: Viking