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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impressive and the author might have elected to leave the work unpublished if he'd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.
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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