Harper Weekend, 2010 reprint of 2009 original, 419 pages, C$13.99 tp, ISBN 978-1-55468-811-1
A close look at Michael Crichton’s bibliography shows a sometimes-baffling mixture of commercial instincts and contrarian beliefs. Crichton always wrote to market, and this eventually came to justify novels that challenged orthodoxy; his belief that he was smarter than everyone else meshed well with the commercial opportunities offered by controversy, and that’s how we ended up with carefully crafted alarmist screeds such as Jurassic Park, Prey and Next, or critic-baiting reactionary tracts such as Rising Sun, Disclosure or State of Fear.
Pirate Latitudes, published after Crichton’s death, is another, happier kind of commercially-driven project. Seizing upon the perennial craze for pirate-related material, it’s a novel that delivers swashbuckling action and adventure in a strictly conventional fashion ripe for cinematic adaptation. It’s a lot like Congo or Timeline in that it exhaustively explores the dramatic opportunities a place and time (17th century Caribbean), every chapter showcasing a new thrill. Stripped of political controversy and free to exploit the new dangerous technologies of a bygone era, it’s a novel that lets readers enjoy the core strengths of Crichton’s writing without suffering from any of its assorted baggage.
The hero of Pirates Latitudes is a capable British privateer named Charles Hunter, hired by the Governor of Jamaica to take advantage of an unusually profitable opportunity: A Spanish galleon has been left behind by the main fleet, and is believed vulnerable to attack while it’s moored at a nearby island. Gathering capable crewmembers, Hunter prepares his expedition and sets out for plunder. As you may expect, the way to the treasure and back won’t be simple or easy: The 17th century Caribbean is a dangerous place, and readers are right to expect a steady rhythm of thrills and adventure on the high seas.
Whether it’s navigating shallow waters, taking on other ships in naval combat or fighting off a kraken, Pirate Latitudes delivers everything we’d expect from a pirate-themed novel. It’s perfectly balanced between fiction and fact, with a sea monster and an uncommon series of adventures on one side, and careful descriptions of the era and nautical details on the other. Crichton’s fiction has seldom been subtle, but it has usually been skilful and the way Pirate Latitudes can exploit the popular idea of the pirate (as depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, most notably) to develop it half-realistically is one of the novel’s most charming aspects. There’s a ton of trivia about navigating sail ships cleverly meshed in the narrative, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable.
Narratively, the novel is almost a complete success, save for the initially curious ending. Unlike what you’d expect from a pirate novel, it doesn’t actually end with a massive naval battle and an all-out boarding assault: those occur earlier in the novel, as do the sea monster attack, dangerous island expedition and triumphant assault on the gold-filled ship. As the first section makes it clear in rounding up the members of the expedition, Pirate Latitudes is structured around a caper plot rather than a more conventional kind of pirate adventure. The ending will seem underwhelming if you’re not familiar with the kind of vengeful double-cross that the form dictates. The characters are all exceptionally accomplished in their own way, which creates a lot of opportunity for extraordinary acts and solid dialogue.
It all amount to a fun novel: not terribly deep nor as meaningful as Crichton’s other controversy-seeking contemporary thrillers, but a decent companion to some of Crichton’s more entertaining books. It’s also, in its own way, a decent send-off for Crichton, who deserved better than the bitter aftertaste of State of Fear and Next as his final send-off. One last novel by Crichton reportedly remains to be published, but it’s going to be assembled from notes and a partially-written manuscript: Pirate Latitudes is the last novel truly written by Crichton, and it’s a reminder that before he became the darling of contrarians, he had an impressive career as a fine popular entertainer. Readers might as well enjoy the experience of a master craftsman deftly delivering one last crowd-pleasing work.
Even if you can’t read, don’t worry; it’ll be adapted as a movie sooner or later.