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Book Review: 'Kahawa'

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Kahawa is the Swahili word for ”coffee,” the unlikely plunder in this most unlikely and ambitious of Westlake’s criminal caper novels. Set in Uganda during the reign of dictator Idi Amin, it’s the tale of a group of none-too-admirable white mercenaries who conspire to hijack a freight train carrying the nation’s entire yearly java crop. So how is it possible to make 32 boxcars filled with 130-pound sacks of coffee beans (worth about $6 million) vanish in the middle of equatorial Africa? Well, it takes a lot of planning. And as anybody familiar with Westlake’s benignly twisted worldview can guess, the more complicated the scam, the more things can go absurdly and preposterously wrong — particularly in a nation undergoing a tribal upheaval and an anti-Christian onslaught of terrible ferocity. Westlake has clearly steeped himself in the history, culture, ethnology, and political lunacies of that corner of Africa. The result is a darkly tinged, jaggedly funny novel that may be the author’s masterpiece. A