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Onyx reviews: Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

When a popular author dies, his personal papers and hard drives are often scoured for remnants that can be cobbled together. The results are sometimes less than impressive and the author might have elected to leave the work unpublished if he'd been consulted. One of the worst cases of this in recent years is The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams, scraps and fragments that resemble nothing so much as an attempt to cash in.

Pirate Latitudes is the first posthumous novel by Michael Crichton, who died in late 2008. The manuscript was reportedly discovered complete on his hard drive, but there's no indication when the book was written. It's impossible to "carbon date" the text based on technological or social context, since the story is set nearly 350 years ago.

It opens in the British colony on Jamaica during a time when the Caribbean was ruled by the Spanish navy. Though piracy is strictly outlawed and punishable by public hanging, the practice is secretly endorsed by King Charles II, who takes a significant cut of the proceeds. 

The first several chapters establish the historical context, describing the rustic conditions at the colony and elaborating on local politics. The governor reports directly to the King, but getting messages back and forth takes a lot of time so he is autonomous for all intents and purposes. While much of what transpires in this section seems superfluous to the main plot, Crichton is actually setting the stage for important events later in the book.

The Maguffin is a Spanish treasure galleon anchored in the heavily fortified harbor of Manticeros. Previous forays against the island have been disastrous, resulting in the loss of most hands, but infamous pirate Captain Charles Hunter believes he can take the ship and appropriate its riches for Port Royal and the Crown, with a major share for himself, of course. He assembles a team of specialists for an assault on the island in scenes that are more reminiscent of a caper like Ocean's Eleven than a pirate novel: an explosives expert who can make bombs out of rat intestines (shades of MacGyver), a cross-dressing female pirate who uses her acute vision to guide the pirate ship through treacherous waters, and other members of a motley crew who are adept with swords, crossbows and cannons. 

Hunter himself doesn't seem so much a pirate (or the more fashionable and quasi-legitimate "privateer") as he does a special forces op or a con artist. He's a shallow rogue, motivated by a lust for gold and women. The latter swoon in his presence, and no heavily armed treasure ship or impregnable fortress is too difficult for his acute and resourceful mind. In battle, he is indestructible, though the same is not true of everyone on his team. Pirates are as apt to have their brains blown out by their fellow crewmen as by an enemy cannonball, for rough justice is quickly dispatched at sea. 

The book consists of a series of stereotypical pirate movie scenes. There's the first naval battle, where the pirates are outgunned but still outwit the superior Spanish gunship. There's the attack on Manticeros, with all of the attendant chills and thrills, and the requisite discovery of a captive English noblewoman on the island. Then there is the pursuit, the equally required harrowing scene involving a hurricane, an island with headhunters, and even an encounter with a mystical kraken that leaves Hunter with distinctive scars on his chest. None of these scenes last very long, and there is rarely any suspense over whether Hunter will prevail or not. After surviving all this, Hunter returns to Jamaica, where the little grenades Crichton planted early in the novel go off, leading to the obligatory trial for piracy, which is actually retaliation for another, more personal offence Hunter committed. This plot development is, perhaps, the book's best surprise.

Compared to Crichton's recent technothrillers, packed full of scientific research and political invective, Pirate Latitudes is light fare. There is no hidden subtext and no future shock. It's pure, unadulterated entertain­ment, filled with honor and dishonor among thieves and the sorts of escapades, albeit abbreviated, that made The Pirates of the Caribbean movies so delightful. In fact, the book reads more like one of the novels Crichton wrote while in med school. dashed out to help pay his bills. His tendency to explain even the most mundane facts is intact, but it's not cutting edge intelligence.

It's mostly harmless, but hardly the novel to represent Crichton's swan song. The author may well have intended to go back and flesh out the scenes and the characters at some point, or he may have been content to have the novel remain in his trunk, unseen. We'll never know.

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