Jacey's Reviews > Pirate Latitudes

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton
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Nov 01, 2014

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bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction
Read in January, 2010

This is the first Michael Crichton book I've read, and possibly the last is it's a posthumous publication (he died in 2008). I found it fascinating with some gripping and tense passages, but an oddly unsatisfying ending despite the success of the hero's enterprise. It's like eating meringue, pleasing during the act but it doesn't satisfy for long and afterwards you realise you've eaten empty calories.

Set in the Caribbean in 1665, the hero of the tale, Captain Charles Hunter sets of from Port Royal with Letters of Marque to cut wood, but in reality – in partnership with Governor Almont – to attack a Spanish stronghold of Mataceros and liberate the treasure galleon lying up for the winter. Hunter has out together a crew with specialist skills, recruited in a sequence of 'Magnificent Seven' type meetings. Sanson, the killer; the eagle-eyed Lazue, a woman who lives as a man; Mr Enders, the sea-artist, as fine a sailor as ever trod the deck; Bassa, the Moor, built like a bull, and Don Diego, the Jew, an explosives expert.

After a bit of perfunctory sex with the wife of the governor's new secretary, Hacklett – getting the obligatory romance out of the way early – but providing a reason for a later plot turn, there follows an adventure which rolls from one possible oceanic catastrophe to another, all narrowly averted. On the way to Matanceros they are outgunned and outmanoeuvred by Cazalla – the very man they are about to attack – surrendering without a fight all except for Sanson who later proves his worth by rescuing them, Then the raiding party have to scale an impossible cliff to attack Matanceros from land which they do despite Hunter almost getting killed on the climb. Then their plan goes not quite to plan when Cazalla returns to pport early and nearly rumbles them, but despite the inevitable face-off between Hunter and Cazalla – with success for Hunter, of course – everything else seems eazy. They blow the powder magazines, double-shot the cannon on the batteries to make it easy for Hunter's crew to sail right into the harbour and take the treasure galleon and then make good their escape, almost as an afterthought rescuing Lady Sarah Almont, the Governor's niece who has been captured by Cazalla from an English ship recently taken. Is there romance ahead? Sadly no, though the prickly Lady Sarah does a bit of half-hearted witchcraft that seems misplaced in this story.

But that's only the start of hunter's troubles. The galleon is a badly maintained wallowing monster of a ship. They are sailing it with a skeleton crew which doesn't give them enough men to man the 32 perfectly useful guns. The treasure, though huge, is not as immense as they expected due to some of the silver being cut with worthless platinum.

On the way home the encounter a set of serial woes. They encounter the Kraken, are chased into Monkey Bay by Cazalla's second-in-command and the dreaded gunship of the line only to find themselves endangered by cannibalistic Carib natives. They have to figure out how to fire enough of the guns at one time to sink the enemy. This they do but are severely damaged in the exchange... and then they have to survive a hurricane at sea. Could it get any worse? Actually yes. When they eventually get back to port they find Sanson and their original ship with half the treasure, hasn't made it home and there's a warrant for their arrest as pirates because the governor's secretary, Hacklett, (his wife already known to be carrying Hunter's child) has taken over with the help of the garrison commander. A travesty of a trial (with Sansoin brought in as a lying witness) sees the Hunter all set to hang in two days, but the governor, Hacklett's pregnant wife and Anne Sharpe, a serving girl, effect a rescue and Hunter sets about killing all the men that condemned him, except for Hacklett who is despatched by his wife. He then goes after Sanson who survived the wreck of the smaller ship, buried the treasure and killed the crew who were witnesses. And this is where the ending loses its flavour. He kills Sanson but never deciphers the treasure map and spends most of the rest of his (short) life searching for it. Weirdest of all is the epilogue that reads like Hunter is a real historical figure (if he is I can't find any references) because the epilogue wraps up all the rest of the individual stories and has Hunter dying in a cottage in England only five years later having been weakened with malaria. The governor and Lady Sarah return to London where they die in the great fire one year later. Hacklett's wife dies of syphilis some twenty odd years later, but her son survives to become a merchant and his son eventually becomes governor of the Carolina Colony, The one who comes of best is the little servant girl, Anne Sharpe who returns to London and lives her life as a celebrated actress.

It's a strangely unsatisfying ending and a strangely unsatisfying book. All tough all the elements are there, the style is spare and somewhat uninvolving. This could almost be the blueprint for a much more fleshed out novel, yet the spareness itself is not unattractive. On the basis of this, however, I will not seek out Crichton's back catalogue. I believe the film rights have been sold and I believe it will make a better film than a book when the pixie dust has been sprinkled over it and the happy-ever-after ending inserted.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Dyan (new)

Dyan Lee He was a great writer and storyteller. 13 books made into movies because they were wonderful. Don't judge a book that was likely only a first draft.

Jacey Thanks for that, Dyan. Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing Michael Crichton's writing in general. As I said, I haven't read any of his other books and obviously there will be no new ones now. My review is a personal view of this book and this book only. I hadn't realised when I committed to it, that it was a posthumous first draft, but I can't judge it as anything other than what it presents to the reader on the page. If it's a first draft and therefore not fully realised, then the blame lies firmly at the door of the publisher for not making it obvious that they were presenting an unfinished work for fans and completists. I wonder what the author would think about it being published in the first place. Good grief, I wouldn't want anyone to read my first drafts of anything.

message 3: by Dyan (new)

Dyan Lee Since I read all of his other books, I honestly feel that he wasn't finished. I could be wrong, but if it were finished why hadn't he turned it over? They found it while sifting through his stuff. It just doesn't seem polished like his other books.

Jacey It's a pity when an author's last publication is weaker than the rest through no fault of his own. I'm sure he'd have preferred staying to finish it. Could it be that it was an early work long ago consigned to the bottom drawer? I've got a few of those I wouldn't like anyone to publish.

Reev Robledo Great review! I hope you get to read "The Great Train Robbery". I thought it was well written.

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