Crichton’s last work reads script-ready

By Carol Iaciofano
December 15, 2009

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Know this, if you dive into “Pirate Latitudes,’’ Michael Crichton’s 17th-century high seas adventure: The Englishmen who plunder Spanish treasure ships here are not pirates. They are “privateers,’’ patriots fighting to loosen Spain’s hold on the Caribbean trade. And while these sailors do keep much of the booty for themselves, they also assume all the risk. As one buccaneer frames the central question facing them all: “Are the reasons as good as the dangers are great?’’

The publishers might have asked the same question before sending this book to press.

The manuscript of “Pirate Latitudes’’ was discovered in Crichton’s files after his death, at 66, last year. Finding a completed manuscript by such a bankable author (his works include “Jurassic Park,’’ “The Terminal Man,’’ “Westworld,’’ and “The Andromeda Strain’’) is like finding gold. In fact, Steven Spielberg has already acquired the rights to it.

But a completed manuscript is not a finished novel, and “Pirate Latitudes’’ often reads much like a draft, albeit a fairly good one.

The tale begins in 1665, when Jamaica is a lone English stronghold in a sea ringed by Spanish-held islands.

Port Royal is a fetid “boomtown’’ of daring sailors, scheming businessmen, and the bold women they attract. In this world, you don’t have to be a swashbuckler to be in danger; you could easily be cut down by dysentery, shaking fever, or the random brawl on the street.

As with many of his classic thrillers, Crichton makes place and time come alive with a wealth of engaging detail. His love of how things work shows in descriptions of international politics, all manner of ships, even 17th-century hygiene.

James Almont is the savvy governor who maintains order by regularly hanging outlaw pirates and just as regularly doing covert business with privateers. To survive in the New World, he applies political skills learned at the court of King Charles II, knowing his authority is “as thin as a parchment fragment.’’

Almont learns that a heavily laden Spanish galleon is anchored at the island fortress of Matanceros, waiting for a warship escort back to Spain. Matanceros is ruled by the barbaric Cazalla, a coca-leaf chewing sadist who delights in devising new ways to slowly kill anyone he captures.

Almont wants that galleon, and knows there’s only one man for the job: Captain Charles Hunter, respected and feared by other men, irresistible to servant girls and high-born ladies. Raised in Massachusetts Bay Colony and educated at Harvard College, Hunter’s the audacious Puritan who’d rather raid ships than read books.

But he takes this challenge for more than pirate booty; his brother was tortured and killed by Cazalla.

Hunter assembles a crew of memorable if one-dimensional characters, like Enders, “the barber-surgeon and sea artist’’; Black Eye, the explosives specialist; the sly, stealthy Sanson; and Lazue, a female sailor with sharp vision who masquerades as a man.

In many scenes, Crichton’s craft is evident. The prelude to a hurricane is fraught with tension, as the writer showcases how these experienced sailors notice subtle but ominous changes in wind and wave. A confrontation in a crowded tavern is tautly executed with lines like, “In the silence of the room, the blood spattered with an odd loudness on the ground.’’

But too often, these scenes bob on a choppy writing sea. Some characters who are introduced as apparent key players in specific subplots are just forgotten, never to be mentioned again. And Hunter’s ultimate meeting with Cazalla lacks the kind of buildup one might expect. In fact, it ends up being treated as if it were just another event among many.

And there are many events. The privateers barely have time to catch their breath from one spectacular escapade to another. The map on the end pages proves invaluable to track their journey.

In the end “Pirate Latitudes’’ isn’t quite ready to sail. But the movie will probably be a thrilling ride.

Carol Iaciofano is a freelance writer who blogs at Suburban Study,


By Michael Crichton

Harper, 320 pp., $27.99

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