Michael Crichton's career has been peaked by darkly exploratory journeys into science gone wrong with novels like Sphere, Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Congo, and while I've always appreciated his knack for creating believable, if not plausible, sci-fi scenarios using his love with certain areas of fringe tech, some of his more entertaining books come about when he steps away from the schematics and computer print outs and goes to town in a world of complete fantasy. Such is Pirate Latitudes, the last book ever written in full by Crichton, which was discovered on the author's computer after his death in November '08.

There are no moral tales of the responsibility inherent to toying with the genome or brushing shoulders with extinct species found here. Rather, Pirate Latitudes is more in league with Eaters of the Dead and The Great Train Robbery; a pure adventure story. However, while you may be expecting a pirate book arriving after the monumental success of Pirates of the Caribbean to feature out-of-this-world plot devices and ridiculously zany, swashbuckling set pieces, rest assured that Captain Jack Sparrow has left no visible imprint on Crichton's latest. No, Pirate Latitudes is a hard-boiled, men-on-a-mission thriller that has more in common with Michael Mann's Heat or Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; it just happens to be set in a wonderous time when anything seemed possible, a time when sea dragons and cannibal natives may not have just been tall tales.
The year is 1665, the setting Port Royal, a far-flung English colony on the island of Jamaica. The King has declared piracy a high crime punishable by death, but Sir. James Almont, a man increasingly bored by his monotonous posting as Governor of Jamaica, is willing to turn a blind eye to it from time to time so long as it keeps things lively (and he makes a nice profit in the process). When word comes to Almont that a ship most likely carrying thousands of pounds of gold has been spotted in a particular harbor protected by a Spanish fortress, the old man alerts the privateer Captain Charles Hunter. Recognizing that no one has ever led a successful siege on Matanceros, but aroused by the challenge, Hunter assembles the best bloodthirsty vagabonds the island has to offer and sets sail for the seemingly impregnable Spanish fortress.

Simple premise, yes, but then again all great heist stories have a simple premise; and there is little simpler than a crew of men on a perilous mission who will slit the throat of any Spaniard that comes between them and more riches than they've ever known. And, as with all great heist stories, the job never ends up being simple. Crichton manages to throw in a whole host of imaginable (and unimaginable) obstacles between Hunter and his treasure that all help make Pirate Latitudes one of the most memorable books the prolific author has ever written. The insurgency on land reads like a WWII behind-enemy-lines mission, while the battles on the high sea are uniquely riveting, thanks in no small part to descriptions of cannon fire that will inspire savage imagery along the lines of Spielberg's D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan; except machine gun turrets and had grenades are replaced by artery severing splinters and body-separating hunks of lead.

One shouldn't expect to come away with historically accurate insights into what pirate life was like in the 17th century - a certain legendary sea beast makes quite the appearance, after all - but Crichton does a commendable job of creating a world in which none of his devices feel out of place or forced; which was a problem that befell both Next and State of Fear. If you've been burned by Crichton's aforementioned recent offerings, which I found to be the low-point in the writer's career, Pirate Latitudes should come as a welcome surprise. The core group of characters, which consists mainly of Hunter's skill-specific band of piratical mercenaries, all keep things interesting, while the pages positively fly by thanks to an adventure that, once it starts, never crawls along.
categories Features, Sci-Fi