Pirate Latitudes Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Michael Crichton was an author of unparalleled stature that I continue to miss. I started reading his books at a very young age, having picked up Jurassic Park when I was only seven or eight. I proceeded to plow through his works over the next two decades, loving the mix of science, technology, and high adventure. I even loved State Of Fear, which, despite its ridiculous anti-climate change ideology and irrational hatred of Martin Sheen, was a pretty compelling techno-spy thriller.

So, basically, I adore Crichton's work. And imagine my surprise when I learned that, after his death, editors found a completed manuscript on Crichton's home computer: Pirate Latitudes!A historical thriller in the vein of Timeline and The Great Train Robbery, and one on 17th century Caribbean piracy to boot! One year after that announcement, I finally got my hands on the book, and tore into it.

Pirate Latitudes, however, proves to be decent but also something of a disappointment. The book was clearly in need of more editing and more effort from Crichton. Unfortunately, fate (and cancer) precluded both. What's there is often entertaining, but the whole ensemble often seems like a framework rather than a good story.

Pirate Latitudes starts strongly enough, introducing the Governor of Jamaica, Sir James Almont, and his jaundiced view of the city Port Royal. This isn't the picturesque tropical town of Pirates of the Caribbean... Port Royal was a hideous, stinking place, full of misery and disease. Crichton had done his homework, using a wealth of historical information to paint an accurate picture of what life in the colony was really like.

Sir James does his best to avoid or ignore the unpleasantness, but he's shrewd enough to embrace lawlessness (or at least a loophole in the laws) when he learns of a Spanish treasure galleon anchored in the bay of Matanceros, protected by a strong fortress and an evil Spanish commander named Cazalla. Port Royal doesn't nearly have the cash inflow it needs to stay afloat, so Sir James needs a privateer to capture the treasure while it is vulnerable.

Enter: Charles Hunter, a daring captain born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and educated at Harvard. He learns of his task: an evil Spanish commander... an impregnable fortress... an impassible island... a tremendous garrison of Spanish troops... dangerous shipping lanes. He then recruits the requisite band of colorful cutthroats, including a Jewish shopkeeper-turned-ordnance expert, a French assassin, a female crossdresser, and a towering, mute Moorish strongman. They set sail, and the caper is on, in the best tradition of The Guns of Navarone or Ocean's 11.

The tradition may be the best, but the story is not. Hunter and his men and women are given almost no characterization whatsoever, aside from a few brief introductory paragraphs. It's a gaping flaw in the storytelling, considering that the opening chapters prior to Hunter's introduction go to great lengths to establish the characters of Sir James Almont, his duplicitous Deputy Governor, and a newly-arrived housemaid released from a prison in London. Yet, these well-introduced characters fall to the wayside once Hunter sets sail for Matanceros.

Furthermore, Pirate Latitudes has the odd distinction of being an adventure story where its characters wholly operate without much in the way of morals. Good versus Evil is replaced by Bad versus Worse. We are told much about Cazalla, the Spanish commander who we know is evil because he has not only killed the Jewish shopkeeper's son, but also Hunter's brother. Naturally, the story's first real encounter with Cazalla involves one crewman's throat being slit and another getting his face... well... it's creative, so I won't spoil it. Anyway, that establishes that the bad guy is appropriately evil, yes?

It's heavy-handed, of course, and doesn't really work given the piratical inclinations of Hunter and his men. For instance, before they leave Port Royal, Hunter notices a peg-legged beggar near their ship. Thinking that no beggar would ever come this close to the docks and that he must be a spy, Hunter orders the Moor to murder the man. And murder him he does. Hunter is such a good guy.

Anyway, these amoral characters set sail to do battle with and steal gold from other amoral characters. Then proceeds the heist part of the story, where Hunter and his elite crew must infiltrate Matanceros and somehow immobilize the large Spanish garrison, spike the guns of the fort, steal the Spanish treasure galleon, and make a clean getaway. There are plenty of quirks and close shaves that make the Matanceros raid the best part of the novel.

And yet, the raid only takes up about 2/3 of the story. Upon it's conclusion, Pirate Latitudes delves into a mishmashed series of adventures that often have no relation to each other, and little relation to common sense either. There's a hurricane, a minor character's witchcraft, a band of bloodthirsty natives, and (I wish I was kidding) a kraken. Not, like, a harmless giant squid that the ignorant protagonists think is a kraken, but an actual, murderous kraken. I'm assuming this section was written by Crichton, and I'm wondering whether he was given medical marijuana at some point. Or medical mushrooms.

The story then resolves back in Port Royal, where an unforeseen series of events requires Hunter to, well... go all Braveheart.

The last third of the book, and especially the ending, beg questions as to why the book had to be discovered by an editor, as opposed to already having been pitched to one. Poor characterization is one thing, but the pacing and plot developments become so irrational towards the end that one wonders if Crichton hadn't intended to spend more time with the novel and flesh it out some. Characters, such as Sir James and his impish housemaid, had not been spoken of since Hunter set sail. Yet when Hunter returns to Port Royal, they are behaving in a way that is not only inconsistent with the characterization they did receive, but they are dealing with a series of events that - when last spoken of during Hunter's departure - were being appropriately dealt with. Crichton shows Sir James being well in control of Situation A, only to have somehow lost control of it during the intervening time thanks to events which are never properly or satisfactorily explained to the reader.

In dealing with these events, the book's conclusion abandons Hunter's elite crew - several of whom were starting to become interesting - and returns to the characters of Port Royal that had been abandoned by the storytelling several hundred pages earlier. The book then climaxes with a series of malicious events that rivals the cruelty Crichton employed against, um, liberals and environmentalists in State Of Fear. The book ends abruptly after that, leaving a bitter taste in the reader's mouth.

Pirate Latitudes has all the trappings of a great Crichton book, from the attention to detail, to the exotic setting, to the madcap adventure. But, as exemplified by the poor handling of characters and the misconceived final third of the book, I fear that time and illness eventually compromised Crichton's writing abilities. Especially the time factor, as good writing, good research, and good characters open the book and progressively decline as the story moves on. Which isn't to say that the latter parts of the book don't have sparks of brilliance, as they do. It's just that Pirate Latitudes starts as a great book and ends as merely a great idea.

In final summation, it's a decent book, and well worth reading by any Crichton enthusiast. I'm sure Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie will fix the plot holes and the pacing. (Or, given the debacle that was Indiana Jones 4, maybe not.) In the meanwhile, we have this imperfect book, a pale shadow of Crichton's previous writing but also an often-entertaining yarn that makes us remember the better days of an author that has sadly passed on.