Monday, June 7, 2010

Sailing through Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes

After my recent dire experience with The Island, Peter Benchley's 1979 pirate adventure (see my post here), I was leery of another "best-selling" author tackling the same subject. I was doubly leery when that author was the late Michael Crichton, a writer whose brilliant and innovative ideas are invariably balanced by a nonexistent sense of pacing, characterization and style.

And yet, his 2009 novel Pirate Latitudes surprised me, much as his 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead. This new book was discovered as a completed manuscript among his computer files after his death, and it has the feel of a pet project. As such, perhaps he paid more attention to crafting a plot that pays off, rather than a series of incidents that simply stop when the book runs out of pages (i.e., Jurassic Park). Whatever the reason, both Latitudes and Eaters avoid the pitfalls of Crichton's books set in the contemporary world.

Charles Hunter is a privateer in Jamaica's Port Royal, attacking Spanish ships under the protection of the British governor. When he gets word of a Spanish galleon anchored in an impregnable harbor, he hatches a plan to steal it, and its considerable treasure.

And that's really it. There's not a lot of digression, just a straightforward plot with lots of action and damn near every pirate cliche you could want. There are hurricanes, attacks by giant squid, sword fights and cannon broadsides. Hunter is as smooth with the ladies as he is with the waves. Each member of his crew has a specialty, and they all manage to save the day at least once. The villains are suitably rogueish (all could be played by Basil Rathbone), and only the sex and violence make it an adult book. It's Pirates of the Caribbean for grownups.

Crichton (or his staff) did their research as well, because there are plenty of obscure historical details worked into the story, mostly legitimately. But even at that, there's something thin about it, a sense that it's more a film treatment than an actual novel. We learn only enough about the characters to justify their actions, and although the settings are vivid, they still don't feel like places real people live. Still, perhaps that's enough. No one should expect depth from the guy who wrote The Lost World.

Here's the British book trailer (much cooler than the US one):

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